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What do the dropped charges against Mubarak mean for the Arab Spring?

The dismissal of charges against Egypt’s former leader signals renewed calls for revolution

The Arab Spring began four years ago with protests in Tunisia. The political outcome there, while a work in progress, is totally different from Egypt’s. Tunisia’s new parliament held its inaugural session Tuesday, four years after the ouster of longtime leader Zein El Abidin Bin Ali.

The country’s presidential election is still in motion; citizens for the first time since the revolution went to the polls last month to vote for a president, and the race went into a runoff.

In Egypt, Tahrir Square is still off-limits to protesters. Last week a court dismissed charges against former President Hosni Mubarak and a collection of his officials stemming from his government’s response to the 2011 uprising against him. 

Did Egypt pass through the fire of revolution only to end up in the same place? 

We consulted a panel of experts for the Inside Story

Inside Story: What are your thoughts on the dismissal of charges against Mubarak?

Dalia Fahmy: The [dismissal] should be nonconsequential. We knew that [Mubarak] was not going to be tried. The writing was on the wall … and we should’ve known about this a year ago, especially when his sentences were reduced to three years, and we all knew that he’d probably get out soon, based on the fact that he had already been in prison for four years. The biggest problem is what this signals to Arab youth in the streets. Most voices of revolution are in exile or prison. [The dismissal] was the last nail in the coffin of what we think about in terms of revolution for change. This is going to be much worse than when we first started. Because in order to maintain the status quo, the crackdown has to be worse. 

The military is back in control. How much did the Arab Spring really achieve?

It’s not fair to the revolutionaries for me to say that that we failed. Because what they achieved was monumental in that they broke the fear barrier, and I can’t underscore that enough. What we’ve seen in postrevolutionary moments is that the voices are yet to be completely silent. That is actually an achievement of the Arab Spring. I’m very pessimistic about the coming phase for Egypt. We’re already seeing that many of the youth and revolutionaries are in exile. When you take those that are the supportive middle class and place them in exile, where they feel they have to be outside Egypt to work for Egypt, that isn’t positive. When you have a constitution with a sweeping definition for terrorism, basically anyone protesting, any student can be picked up in sweeps, you’re not going to get to that democratic level. [It is a] very dark time period but can’t last long, because now, the youth know what it means to be heard.

Why do we see cases in which the Arab Spring yielded strong steps toward democracy, like Tunisia, and civil war, like Syria? 

There are internal and external reasons. Each regime responded differently. In Syria the regime cracked down from Day One with massive amounts of violence. The military turned on their own population. In the case of Egypt, the military was protecting the people from state apparatus. In every case we saw the regime respond in different ways. Strategically, Tunisia isn’t relevant to international relations the way Egypt is. Foreign intervention in the case of Tunisian process and uprising has been limited to that of Egypt. The thing with Egypt versus Tunisia — when we think of opposition in Egypt historically, we think of the Muslim Brotherhood because they’ve been the only opposition. Other groups weren’t allowed to register as opposition parties. In Tunisia there’s always been a plurality, and so in that moment of democratic opening, many voices came to the forefront, and what they came to realize is that in order to move forward, we all need to compromise.

What are your thoughts on the dismissal of charges against Mubarak?

Tarek Radwan: When we’re talking about judicial procedure and penance of judiciary, these are all hallmarks of what a functioning institution is, how it’s supposed to behave, where rule of law is respected, procedure respected. It’s the political context in which this is taking place that really signals the problem. The charges brought against him were brought in a hateful way against Mubarak. Because the judiciary at the time was part of that landscape, they felt public pressure to press on ahead with the trial, adhering to these procedures. Now that you’ve had this return of the military to the forefront, where the counterrevolutionary forces have dominated the political sphere, this is where it becomes quite convenient to, again, be looking at a return of procedures. You can smell which ways the winds are changing, but that doesn’t meant that the decision can’t be appealed.

People in Tahrir are reportedly calling for a new revolution. Could this be the start of another one? Do Egyptians have it in them to keep going?

I would be surprised to see that happen. I think the vast majority of Egyptians are suffering from revolution fatigue. They have been for quite a while. In voting [Abdel Fattah El] Sisi into the presidency, turning the other way during the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and even plotting and encouraging reporting on other citizens — all of this — it’s just that Egyptians are tired. I don’t think that it’s in the population right now to undertake another revolution, particularly because the vast majority of people now support this current regime. They see that they voted for it, forget the fact that the elections were grossly unfair, when you suppress dissenting voices, but the fact is that most Egyptians see this as the path they’ve chosen. And those revolutionary forces, if we’re talking Islamists, they’re very much entrenched amongst themselves.

Why is Tunisia more stable, unlike Libya and Syria?

I don’t think the Tunisian story is quite done yet. The counterrevolutionary trend we’re seeing across the Middle East in those relatively more stable countries, it’s not so much counterrevolutionary as it is counter-Islamist. There was a lot of fear that came with Islamists in government, and that fear is now, in Tunis, where they played it safe. They saw what happened in Egypt, and they knew that compromise would be necessary. So was quite pragmatic of them to be able to stay in the political game to step down and put technocratic government in. Every president until [Mohamed] Morsi was from the military. The reason why it was palatable to give up Mubarak was because he had strayed more toward businessmen and capitalists rather than maintaining military supremacy over institutions. That helped explain why Egyptians feel safe with the military. It was a return to comfort.

Can the constitution you helped craft for Tunisia be applied to post–Arab Spring nations that are struggling to find stability?

Riddhi Dastupta: Absolutely. Obviously, there are some conditions that are unique to Tunisia. The provision concerning the role of the local government and role of central government — it’s going to be unique to Tunisia. Other than that, provisions on human rights and corruption, all of those provisions are absolutely necessary for other Arab states and other democracies outside Arab worlds. They are all great gifts of the new Tunisian Constitution.

When you look at the case of Egypt, with the recent dismissal of charges against Mubarak, what does this say to Egypt’s revolution? Has it failed? Is this a roadblock or a turn for the worse?

I think it’s a roadblock and an impediment. The Egyptian Constitution was not that big on structure, in the sense that it didn’t have an allocation of power, didn’t know who was responsible for what and didn’t have a significant enough body politic which was going to hold the powers that be accountable. Also, the real answer which could have ameliorated all these issues is the fact that people in Tunisia take the rule of law and democratic spirit a little more seriously than people or at least the political establishment [in Egypt]. People in the political establishment in Tunisia really wanted to make it work. They didn’t want chaos. That coming from within is part of the explanation.

Tunisia is, realistically, far from perfect, though. What is left for Tunisia? 

I would like nothing more that to see homegrown civil society organizations which are concerned with rights of religious minorities, women and corruption issues. All these to be more organized and rooted, as opposed to be hoisted from foreign sources. The constitution can start from there in becoming a constitution for Tunisians and learn from more-established democracies on how to have an impact and how to self-govern to be autonomous.

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