“A Dark Moment in Egypt’s History”: Former Dictator Hosni Mubarak Cleared in Death of Protesters

Former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was cleared of ordering the killing of hundreds of protesters during the uprising against his regime almost four years ago. The decision, which came on a technicality, means he will walk free after finishing a prison term on corruption charges, possibly within a few months. The court also cleared Mubarak’s former interior minister, Habib al-Adly, and six aides. Several thousand protesters gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Saturday to protest the verdict, leading to a crackdown by state forces in which two people died. We are joined by two guests: In Cairo, Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous; and in New York City, Egyptian journalist and human rights activist Hossam Bahgat.

TRANSCRIPT:

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Egypt. The Egyptian government says it won’t pursue further legal action against former president Hosni Mubarak following a court decision to drop all remaining charges against him. On Saturday, Mubarak was cleared of ordering the killing of hundreds of protesters during the uprising against his regime almost four years ago. The decision, which came on a technicality, means he’ll walk free after finishing a prison term on corruption charges, possibly within a few months. Judge Mahmoud Kamel al-Rashidi announced the verdict.

JUDGE AL-RASHIDI: [Translated] The court dismisses criminal charges against Mohammed Hosni Mubarak in connection with the killing of protesters in 2011 because the prosecution issued an order on the 23rd of March, 2011, stating that he could not stand trial for these charges in case number 1227 Kasr El Nil .

AMY GOODMAN: Shortly after the verdict, Mubarak spoke to a local television station via telephone and defended his 30-year rule, saying “I felt I did nothing wrong at all. I was waiting to find out what they will come up with this time. It was an innocent verdict. I did nothing wrong at all.” Mubarak is being held in a military hospital, is expected to serve at least a few more months of this sentence. Soon after the decision was announced, police used tear gas to disperse thousands of protesters who gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. At least one person was reported killed. Many protesters expressed anger at the decision, this is Islam Hafez.

ISLAM HAFEZ: [Translated] I am very excited because missed participating in the first January 25th protests. But my friends and brothers were killed in it. When I heard that Mubarak got innocent, I was shocked.

AMY GOODMAN: To find out more about the significance of the decision, we’re joined by two guests, Sharif Abdel Kouddous is with us, Democracy Now! correspondent in Cairo, and Hossam Bahgat, is here in New York, and Egyptian journalist and human rights activist who is the founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. He is a visiting scholar at Columbia Journalism School. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!. Sharif, let’s go to you in Cairo first. Tell us what’s happening now in the streets and the response overall to the innocent verdict for Mubarak.

SHARIF ADBEL KOUDDOUS: Well, as you mentioned Amy, there were protests the day of the verdict, just outside of Tahrir square. Tahrir itself was closed by army tanks and APCs and police armored trucks and barbed wire, but a few thousand people did gather on the outskirts protesting the verdict. There was palpable anger. And two people were killed when the police attacked the protesters with bird shot and live ammunition. One of the two reportedly shot six times. And the following day, yesterday, Universities across the country held protests. Students have been, really, one of the epicenters of dissent following the oust of Mohamed Morsi last year, and they continue that protesting the decision yesterday.

But, the message to many Egyptians with this verdict was that justice has not been served. The moment, August 3, 2011, when Mubarak first appeared in court, it was his first public appearance since being ousted following the popular uprising against him. The only reason he was in court was because of mass mobilizations calling for him to be tried. It was a seminal moment in Egyptian history. He was there behind bars listening to the charges against him. Now, less than 3.5 years later, it has been reversed, erased. And, really, I think while many people weren’t that surprised by the ruling, given the nature of the judiciary we have seen over the past year, given the nature of the political situation in Egypt right now, many, I think, were surprised by their capacity to still feel anger and indignation and to be disappointed and upset by this verdict. To see not only Mubarak but Habib el-Adly, his Interior Minister, and the top police chiefs all be acquitted and basically no one being held responsible after dozens — scores of police officers have been acquitted in trials as well, hardly anyone being held responsible for the killing of nearly a thousand people in this uprising. We’re supposed to chalk it up to something like mass suicide. So, it’s a very difficult moment, and again, I think a dark one in Egypt’s history.

AMY GOODMAN: And the way the media has covered this, Sharif?

SHARIF ADBEL KOUDDOUS: Well, there’s been a surprising reaction. A lot of the media — there has been, even within sympathetic channels that are sympathetic to the Sisi regime, newspapers, there’s been a lot of anger about it as well. The main refrain we have been hearing is, so who is the killer? Because everyone has gotten off Scott free. And we saw some of these anchors really questioning legal scholars about with this decision means. There’s been quite an angry tone. Mubarak is fair game for most people. It’s safe for a lot of these anchors to speak out against him. But still, it was a change of tone from a lot of the very [sycophantic] kind of coverage that we’ve seen. Obviously there was that kind of coverage as well, and Mubarak himself, really shockingly, was called in to one of these television stations right after the verdict was announced, and he said that he had done nothing wrong during his term. He said he had laughed in 2012 when the life sentence against him was handed down, which of course, has been overturned. There has been two kinds of reactions in the media as well.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Hossam Bahgat, could you talk about the significance of this decision? Does he walk out now? I mean, we’ve only actually seen him laying down. He is always brought into court in a gurney. Him, his sons, and the people around him, as Sharif described.

HOSSAM BAHGAT: If the authorities decide to apply the law, then, yes, he should be free to go now. If authorities decide that perhaps he should spend a few more weeks until the streets are quieter, I think he is going to show a lot of understanding, given he is not exactly in prison. He has been in a military hospital for months now. But really, the effect of the verdict is not going to rest on where he stays now. The effect has already been achieved. The judge, by exonerating everyone, I mean, made it very clear, of course, that this is not about a body of evidence that has been examined. Not about the legal arguments that have been leveled by the parties. This is about writing for history, really. And at some point, I mean, the judge said that the court decision is about 1400 pages and he circulated a 200-page summary, 280 page summary, of his decision. Many, of course, have been going through that over the last two days. It’s really remarkable. As Sharif says, we’re barely surprised by anything the Egyptian judiciary does now. Which is very sad. We’re talking about a court system that is over 150 years old, that used to be the, really, court system of the arab world, of the region. But, what we have seen over the last year and half, two years, and especially with regard to the criminal justice system, has been appalling. But even under those circumstances and according to those standards, this decision is really outstanding.

AMY GOODMAN: He was acquitted of killing protesters.

HOSSAM BAHGAT: Initially, the charge was that he had ordered or failed to stop the killing of protesters. The judge decided to throw out that charge on a technicality, saying that prosecutors did not follow the right procedure in adding him to that ongoing case in 2011. But really, what’s truly astonishing about this decision is that after the judge is done exonerating everyone and addressing every charge, for about eight pages then, the judge goes into what he calls, literally, the historical context of this verdict. He says, again literally he says, so, I’m not going to rule on the merits of these charges because of these procedural errors, but let me tell you what really happened in 2011. And then he goes on to repeat everything that the propaganda machine of Sisi and the current regime and the Mubarak people have been advancing about a global conspiracy. He literally says the axis of evil of the United States, Qatar, Turkey, Israel, and Iran, came together, collaborated with the Muslim Brotherhood, there was a group of people that was flown abroad to receive training in civic disobedience, there were people that created front human rights organizations. All of them came together, they agitated angry people. Some police officers may have chosen to shoot at protesters, not following any orders, and that is when the Muslim Brotherhood used that mayhem to shoot at both the police and the protesters, killing all of these people. For eight pages, this is the argument he advances. He doesn’t forget, of course, to throw in, as we know, the United States finances the Muslim Brotherhood in order to destabilize the country every time we go toward stability. That’s the signed summary by the judge that has been circulated for the last two days.

AMY GOODMAN: So, where does the country go from here?

HOSSAM BAHGAT: It depends really. I think what we’ve seen in terms of the reaction, especially on campuses where — we’re still in the middle of school year, or an academic year — shows that the degree of confidence that the current regime has was perhaps a bit overstated. There has been a lot of anger. Even, as Sharif mentions, even the press that is pro-regime, pro-military, seem to have been shocked that not even Mubarak’s interior minister has been punished. I mean, punish anyone. Throw something at these angry people. But, nothing. We may see one last appeal by the public prosecutor if they decide to appeal these not guilty sentences, in which case the next trial is going to be conducted by the country’s Supreme Court, the court of court of cassation.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 20 seconds. Sharif, the response in the streets and the protests in Tahrir? What this means for the movements for democracy?

SHARIF ADBEL KOUDDOUS: Well, there’s very little space for any kind of dissent, any kind of opposition right now in Egypt. You risk years in prison, you risk your life by going down on the streets. The students seem to be the last of epicenter center of dissent, and that is continuing. But, we will have to wait and see how this goes forward. This really portrays an alarmingly selective justice system in Egypt. The day after this ruling, 25 Muslim Brotherhood leaders got three years in prison for chanting in a trial. A week before, 78 miners got two to five years in prison for protesting. We have the leaders, the most prominent activists of the revolution that forced Mubarak out of office —

AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, we’re going to have to leave it there. Sharif Abdel Kouddous.