Is the Trial of Hosni Mubarak a Good Thing?

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At least Hosni Mubarak can lay down the whole time. That's a pretty sweet set-up. Photo: AP Photo/Egyptian State TV

Around 800 Egyptian civilians were killed during the historic protests in January and February, and now Hosni Mubarak, the decades-long ruler of Egypt accused of orchestrating the violence against them, is on trial for his alleged crimes. In a Cairo courtroom today, Mubarak was wheeled out on a hospital bed and into a cage with his two sons and seven other defendants. Outside, crowds were jubilant. Justice was finally being done. Hooray.

BUT! Is it still worth it if justice in Egypt leads to more civilian deaths elsewhere?

Normally, the criminal justice system has a deterrent effect. For example, by punishing a guy for smashing an ATM with a baseball bat because he was unable to satisfy his fried-chicken craving, society sends a message to other would-be ATM smashers: "Hey, don't do that."

But this deterrent effect doesn't apply to Middle Eastern despots, because Middle Eastern despots exist outside of the criminal justice system as long as they remain in charge. Consequently, it could be that prosecuting Mubarak — not to mention forcing him into a cage on TV — will only strengthen the resolve of other Middle Eastern leaders facing popular uprisings to cling to power as long as possible, whatever it takes, lest they also get thrown in a cage and charged with killing people once they step down. As the Times reports:


The trial has transfixed a turbulent Arab world, where uprisings have shaken the rule of autocrats and authoritarian rule in Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. Some Arab officials have said the very spectacle of the trial — a president and his family, along with his retinue of officials facing charges — would make those leaders all the more reluctant to step down. On the very day Mr. Mubarak’s trial began, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria escalated his own crackdown on a city at the heart of the uprising against him.

But many gathered here said Arabs should take the opposite lesson from the proceedings. “All of the Arab world has to know that any leader who makes his people suffer will face this fate,” Mr. Farouk said.

Right ... but not if "his people" have been massacred into submission.

In an Arab First, Mubarak Stands Trial [NYT]