CAIRO -- “Bashar should abandon power and retire safely in Egypt. The general prosecutor is murder-friendly,” a friend, referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, told me as we watched former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's trial in the Police Academy's criminal court. Although Mubarak and his interior (security) minister, Habib al-Adly, were handed life sentences at the conclusion of their trials, the generals who ran Egypt's apparatus of repression as deputy interior ministers were acquitted.
Hasan Abd al-Rahman, head of the notorious, Stasi-like State Security Investigations (SSI); Ahmad Ramzi, head of the Central Security Forces (CSF); Adly Fayyid, the head of Public Security; Ismail al-Shaer, who led the Cairo Security Directorate (CSD); Osama Youssef, the head of the Giza Security Directorate; and Omar Faramawy, who oversaw the 6th of October Security Directorate, were all cleared of any wrongdoing. Lawyers for Mubarak and al-Adly will appeal their life sentences, and many Egyptians believe that they will receive lighter sentences.
The verdicts sent an unmistakable message, one with serious consequences for Egypt's political transition. A spontaneous cry was heard from the lawyers and the families of victims when they were announced: “The people want to cleanse the judiciary.”
Indeed, many Egyptians -- including senior judges -- do not view the judiciary as an independent institution. “This is a major professional mistake. Those generals should have been handed life sentences like Mubarak,” said Zakaria Abd al-Aziz, the former elected head of the Judges Club. “The killing went on for days, and they did not order anyone to stop it. The Ministry of Interior (MOI) is not the only place that should be cleansed. The judiciary needs that” as well.
The verdicts certainly reinforce a culture of impunity within the security services. The SSI and its departments were responsible for many human rights violations, including mass torture and extra-judicial killings, throughout Mubarak's 30-year rule. When protesters stormed the SSI headquarters and other governorates in March 2011, torture rooms and equipment were found in every building.
Unlawful detentions, kidnappings, disappearances, systematic torture, rape and inhumane prison conditions have all been documented since the 1980s by human rights organizations and a few Egyptian courts. Acquitting the heads of the SSI and the CSF (the 300,000-strong institution that acted as the “muscle” of Mubarak's regime), after a revolution sparked by police brutality, led directly to renewed protests in Tahrir Square. “We either get the rights of the martyrs, or die like them,” chanted hundreds of thousands in Tahrir and other Egyptian squares. Sit-ins, reminiscent of the 18 days of January and February 2011 that ended Mubarak's rule, have already started.
A third consequence of the verdicts concerns the empowerment of an anti-reform faction within the MOI. Based on my year-long research on Egyptian security sector reform, this faction is already the most powerful.
Following the revolution, factional struggle within the MOI became public. “We have to save face,” said Gen. Abd al-Latif Badiny, a deputy interior minister who was fired under al-Adly. “[M]any officers and commanders refused to torture detainees and were against corruption, but we need a revolutionary president to empower us and clean the ministry.”
Badiny was reappointed after the revolution, but then reprimanded in November 2011, following clashes between demonstrators and police that left more than 40 protesters dead. “He was advocating dialogue with protesters, whereas al-Adly's men wanted a harsh crackdown. They got their way in the end,” says Maj. Ahmad Ragab, the spokesperson of the reformist General Coalition of Police Officers (GCPO), which seeks to establish an official police syndicate and reform the security services along apolitical, professional lines.
The verdicts will significantly affect two other processes: revolutionary forces' capacity to mobilize, and thus to place pressure on the ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), and the presidential elections. The objectives of those protesting the verdicts in Tahrir and other squares include: a judicial purge; a law that would ban Mubarak's senior officials from holding political posts for 10 years; new trials for al-Adly's generals; and removal of the general prosecutor (who was appointed by Mubarak).
There are also calls, still undeveloped, for greater unity ahead of the presidential run-off election on June 16-17. Such appeals range from demanding an immediate transfer of power to a coalition of revolutionary presidential candidates (although the mechanism is vague) to the formation of a united presidential front in the runoff, with Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) as president and left-leaning Nasserist Hamadin Sabahi and liberal-leaning moderate-Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh as vice presidents. MPs have already called on the three figures to come to parliament and negotiate a coalition.
The verdicts are likely to boost support in the runoff for Morsi, who split the Islamist vote with two other candidates in the election's first round. Moreover, a significant share of the non-Islamist revolutionary vote will go to Morsi, owing to the absence of other revolutionary alternatives. The common saying in Tahrir is: “We've got differences with Morsi, but we've got blood with [Ahmed] Shafiq,” Mubarak's last prime minister and Morsi's opponent in the runoff. Pro-revolution, non-Islamist and non-MB candidates received almost 9.7 million votes in the first round of the presidential election. The majority of these voters will probably now support Morsi, as opposed to staying home (the general drift before the verdicts).
The MB must still decide for inclusiveness if it wants to attract the support of Aboul Fotouh and Sabahi voters in the runoff against Shafiq. But, for now, Tahrir and other squares are once again uniting the pro-change forces, whether Islamist or not. The key challenge for Egyptian revolutionaries is to sustain that unity, establish a leadership coalition, translate their chants into concrete demands, and maintain the pressure during implementation. Egypt's revolution continues.
Omar Ashour is the director of the Middle East Graduate Studies Program at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter, and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. He is the author of “The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements.” © Project Syndicate 2012