The trial of the Egyptian ousted Islamist president Muhammad Mursi last week calls to mind the question: was it the first time a ruler of Egypt is put on trial?
When Egypt’s last monarch King Farouk was banished from the country in the aftermath of the July 1952 Revolution and, in 1953, the monarchy was abolished, a flood of writings and books came out expressing an outpour of anger at the deposed king; more than that, at the entire Muhammad Ali dynasty of which he was descendant. The main focus of the anger was the immoral behaviour for which the former monarch was notorious, his womanising and his gambling, as though there had been no other aspect to his character. So much was written in that vein—memorable among them was the books authored by the prominent journalist Mustafa Amin Layali Farouk (Farouk’s Evenings)—that it became next to impossible to distinguish fact from fiction in Farouk’s life.
Thus began a tradition of criticising rulers only when they were no longer. Given the harsh treatment meted to political dissidents, this came as no surprise. To put it bluntly, no one dared criticise a ruler in power; during the monarchy this was plain illegal: anyone who ventured upon criticism of the king faced charges of “offending the royal figure”.
Nasser: The return of consciousness
After Egypt was declared a republic, Muhammad Naguib became the first president for the brief period from June 1953 to November 1954 when he resigned and Gamal Abdel-Nasser took over. Nasser started off wildly popular but, predictably, his popularity waned as his presidency advanced, and his critics found much to deplore. But they soon found out, the hard way, that they better keep their discontent to themselves. The Nasser regime became more and more intolerant of any criticism, and opponents were promptly imprisoned and brutally tortured.
Following Nasser’s death in September 1970—he died in office—a glut of books against him hit the shelves. The forerunner was Awdat al-Waye (The Return of Consciousness) by the writer, playwright, and philosopher Tawfiq al-Hakim who condemned Nasser’s despotism. Hakim was vocally criticised in Egyptian literary circles for his apparent ‘hypocrisy’ since he had, just as all other writers in Egypt, praised the late president in no ambiguous terms while the charismatic Nasser was alive. Nonetheless, the publication of Awdat al-Waye had the effect of opening the floodgates of the pent-up anger at Nasser. The journalist Ibrahim Saeda wrote Sanawaat al-Ar (The Years of Disgrace), and Naguib Mahfouz, who later won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, wrote his poignant al-Karnak, a novel in which he depicted the harsh reality of Nasser’s detention camps. Later books hit the market detailing the memoirs of several who had been detained there, among them Zeinab al-Ghazali’s Hayati (My life), Saad Zahran’s Sign al-Awardi (al-Awardi Prison) and Mustafa Amin’s Sana Oula Sign (Prison 101).
Sadat: Trial before the divine throne
With Anwar al-Sadat, who became president in 1970, it was much the same story. Sadat became a national hero when he spearheaded the 1973 October War in which the Egyptian army crossed the Suez Canal into the Israeli-occupied Sinai. The war victory afforded him the potential to negotiate a peace treaty with Israel that returned Sinai to Egyptian hands, but turned against him the Islamists who would hear of no peace with Israel. Sadat was assassinated at the hands of the Islamists in 1981. During his 11 years in office, no one dared to publicly criticise Sadat except very subtly. Yet, one month before he was killed, Sadat ordered a massive crackdown against his opponents, sending more than 1500 from across the political spectrum to prison.
After Sadat’s death, though, the veteran journalist and writer Muhammad Hassanein Heikal published his Khareef al-Ghadab (The Autumn of Wrath) in which he fiercely attacked Sadat on all fronts, to the point of mocking his dark skin. In his Yawm Qutila al-Zaeim (The Day the Leader was Killed) Naguib Mahfouz criticised Sadat’s policy of economic openness and his joining hands with the Islamist groups that in the end assassinated him.
In 1988 Mahfouz published his unforgettable Amam al-Arsh (In front of the Throne) in which he depicts a number of Egypt’s rulers and leaders, some of them back in time to the Pharaohs, who stand trial before the throne of Osiris after their death. In his singular style, Mahfouz brings alive in delicate, sensitive, understanding language the successes and errors committed by each of them, as they answer the supreme judge. Among those who stand trial before the ancient Egyptian god of the underworld are the hero of the 1919 nationalist movement Saad Zaghloul, as well as Sadat and Nasser.
Mubarak: the only president criticised while in office
It was Hosni Mubarak alone, president from 1981 to 2011, who was openly criticised while in office. If anything, it says volumes of freedom in his days, which his critics allege was curtailed.
Writers and journalists wrote their heads off criticising and attacking Mubarak and his policies, among them Ibrahim Eissa and Abdel-Halim Qandil.
Mubarak stepped down in February 2011, in the wake of an 18-day popular uprising. He and his family refused to leave Egypt, the result being that he became the first president to stand trial on charges among which were collaborating to kill protestors and profiteering. The court acquitted him on several charges, but sentenced him to life in prison for his political responsibility in killing the protestors. Mubarak appealed the ruling. The prolonged appeal is working in his favour as new facts come to light which have the potential to clear him.
Mursi: charges that amount to high treason
Last Monday saw Egypt’s first Islamist president, Muhammad Mursi, stand trial on charges of killing protestors. He faces other charges of breaking jail and espionage the penalty of which may amount to the death sentence. During his one year in office, Mursi had been the subject of harsh criticism on every possible public venue in Egypt: the print and audio-visual media, social networking sites, plain talk and conversation, and that very Egyptian exercise of making him the butt of countless jokes.
Contrary to Mubarak who submitted to the court in all respect, Mursi was during his trial defiant and aggressive, grandstanding and refusing to acknowledge the authority of the court. The judge adjourned the court to 8 January, and Mursi was taken to Burg al-Arab prison southwest Alexandria.
The historical fact then is that apart from Mubarak and Mursi no Egyptian leader or president ever stood trial except within the pages of fiction.
10 November 2013