What exactly does Egypt want of Egypt?
I ask this question not simply because of the tens of thousands of furious Cairo citizens who flooded the streets on Sunday after learning that alone among the many accused, only their former president, Hosni Mubarak, and his former interior minister, had been sentenced to life imprisonment as mere accessories to the 240 deaths in Tahrir Square in January 2011. In fact, the judge called Mubarak an “accessory to murder.”
Here’s a question, however: what is an “accessory to murder”? According to the judge in the case, it’s someone who fails to stop those 240 deaths—a completely bogus definition under international law and even Egyptian law.
An accessory to murder is, as you might guess, someone who actively helps other people murder someone else. It is not necessarily bad crowd control or even evil crowd control.
What Judge Ahmed Rafaat lacked in legal accuracy, however, he more than made up for in classically Egyptian florid prose as he read the verdict on the 84-year-old Mubarak. The former leader’s reign, he said, was “30 years of intense darkness—black, black, black, the blackness of a chilly winter night.” As for the populace: “The peaceful sons of the homeland came out of every deep ravine with all the pain they experienced from injustice, heartbreak, humiliation … Bearing the burden of their suffering on their shoulders, they moved peacefully toward Tahrir Square.”
Well, there are a lot of things you can say about the Tahrir Square demonstrations, but the one thing they were not was uniformly peaceful. More than four foreign women, some of them journalists like CBS newswoman Lara Logan, were either raped or sexually assaulted by demonstrators in Tahrir Square, along with at least two Egyptian women. So the myth that the nominally pro-democracy demonstrations in Egypt were peace-loving and hope-filled occasions is just that: a myth concocted by those who choose to ignore the violence inflicted on Egypt’s traditionally most vulnerable and brutally afflicted: women, women foreigners, and women who dare to work in the company of men. All of these groups were shown a thing or two in Tahrir Square by those who professed to aspire to democracy.
It’s hard to know what to make of the latest bout of fury from thousands of Egyptian demonstrators: they are angry, of course, that Mubarak wasn’t condemned to death (the symbol of the noose was hoisted everywhere among the crowds); angry that Mubarak’s two sons and certain officials weren’t found guilty of the charges that doomed the former president (although the Mubarak sons remain in jail, facing, this time around, stock manipulation charges); angry that certain other corruption charges—both Mubarak and his sons received fabulous vacation homes from an Egyptian businessman in return for an even more fabulous gas deal—were dismissed outright by the judge.
But guilty or not guilty, convicted or freed, hanged or imprisoned—does any of this really make a difference to the future of a nation that doesn’t know what it wants? The real issues, the core issues of Egypt are not Mubarak. Or his sons. The real issues remain the specters of tyranny: as vibrant, frightening, and potent as those that haunted any previous Egyptian regime—and perhaps more enduring.
Next month, in defiance of all hopes for a secular, democratic future for the nation, a Muslim Brotherhood candidate will be facing a runoff with Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak’s last flunky—I mean, prime minister. And thanks to Judge Rafaat’s latest ruling, it looks like the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohammed Morsi, is gaining quite a bit of traction. (Indeed, according to the New York Times, in the midst of the latest demonstration, “Brotherhood members formed two long rows so Mr. Morsi could safely walk into the Tahrir Square crowd, and then cheering supporters carried him on their shoulders.”)
What Egypt wants from Egypt is change. But by change it means: No more Mubaraks, as decades ago it meant no more Sadats. It does not necessarily mean the kind of change the rest of the world’s nations once cheered. Not the democratic nations, anyway. Not the nations duped into optimism by a country that doesn’t yet understand the true nature of democracy, the fearful passion of mobs, the heavy responsibility of freedom.