In the nearly three months since the revolution in Egypt, the popular imagination of the Arab world's largest country has been gripped by a new obsession: how to mete justice to ex-President Hosni Mubarak and high-ranking members of his regime, including his two sons.
Some Egyptians want clean, flat-out revenge, with punishments handed out and heads rolling. At the least, they want the men they blame for Egypt's woes held accountable and they want something back as compensation for the billions of dollars they allege the regime stole from the public through corruption. "The trial is the most important thing right now to convict the ex-president and the ex-regime," says Ali Mokhtar al-Qatan, who spent 14 years behind bars after criticizing Mubarak to his face when both men were on a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1993. "If we say it's a bad house, we need to tear it down to build it again."
Almost daily, the Egyptian newspapers including the official state press offer coverage of fresh corruption charges, including pictures of newly jailed officials being carted away in white jumpsuits and juicy details of how the rich and powerful are faring behind bars in Tora Prison, a sprawling concrete complex south of Cairo that previously housed some of Egypt's most prominent opposition leaders. Mubarak, who continues to reside in hospital detention in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm El-Sheikh, for health reasons, is "terrified" of Tora, one state paper reported; while his sons Gamal and Alaa, along with other ex-ministers and party leaders, though dressed in prison garb, are dining on food catered by the Four Seasons, other reports allege. Other reports have the sons depressed with finding themselves in jail.
For some Egyptians, the news and gossip are both titillating and outrageous. But for others, jail is jail. "No one ever imagined that even a servant in one of their homes could be made to go to prison. So the fact that these people are in prison now is a miracle," says Qatan, cracking a wide grin. "It will be the trial of the century."
But can justice really be served within Egypt's still unstable political climate? Many fear that the Mubaraks may benefit from a web of connections that still exists and a justice system that like the rest of Egypt's state institutions has been beleaguered by corruption and lack of transparency for decades. The Ministry of Justice is seen as such a weak institution and the due process it practices still experimental that the country's current power brokers, the military, have deemed hundreds of cases more appropriate for military courts. The Mubaraks and their alleged cronies, on the other hand, will receive trials in vicil courts. "Those being tried in military courts are thugs and bullies," says one Army officer who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
Many of Tahrir Square's most diehard activists suspect there is no way the Supreme Military Council, led by Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, a long-time Mubarak ally, is going to let its old commander-in-chief receive a tough verdict or even a balanced trial. "Gamal and Alaa [Mubarak's sons] should be in jail for life or at least 20 years and execution for [Hosni] Mubarak," says Essam al-Sherif, a political activist who took part in a mock trial for the former president in Tahrir Square two weeks ago. "But I don't expect to see him executed. The military and Mubarak's relationship spans 30 years," he says. "So I think they'll hold him for 15-day periods, one after the other, and that will calm people down and enable them to go on with their lives. I think Mubarak will die before there's ever a trial. They will delay it as long as possible."