Courtroom No. 24 at the South Cairo Court is a tumultuous microcosm of postrevolution Egypt. Its wooden benches are packed with men, women and children talking, yelling, never still, as tea and soda vendors weave through the crowd, while a judge inaudibly reads out the names of the defendants on more than a dozen unrelated cases to indicate that their trials have been postponed. Just another day in the life of a country beset by sclerotic bureaucracy and endemic corruption: Egyptians are long accustomed to the fact that everything there takes a long time.
The message of the popular uprising that began one year ago and in just 18 days ended the three-decade reign of President Hosni Mubarak was quite different: Egyptians don't have to wait passively and patiently in hope of getting a fair shake; things can happen remarkably quickly when they take their destiny into their own hands. That's why many have taken to the streets repeatedly over the past year, occupying Tahrir Square, railroads and the doorways of ministries, making demands previously believed to be beyond reach. As the country marks the first anniversary of the uprising on Jan. 25, thousands will take to the streets once again, not only celebrating last year's achievement but also to take up unfinished business. The lesson of Mubarak's ouster for many Egyptians has been that toppling a dictator is not the same as toppling his regime.
The crowded halls of Egypt's courts represent both the country's unrelenting woes inefficiency, corruption, opacity and even the irrelevance of laws without accountable governance and also the revolution's hopes. Justice was the most widely shared goal of the diverse array of Egyptians who joined the uprising, and yet most would concur that it remains elusive. The security men and regime officials accused of killing hundreds of protesters during the rebellion, and in demonstrations since, have mostly gone unpunished. Activists claim that in the year since the uprising, more than 12,000 civilians have appeared before closed military courts, but the trial of the ousted President has dragged on since August. On Monday, according to CNN, Mubarak's attorney argued that his client should be tried in a special court because, technically, he never signed a document certifying his resignation from the presidency. Not that such legal minutiae will determine the court's decision, concedes one jurist. "Till now, the way you get your rights in court is what's your wasta [connections] and who's your cousin," says Hossam Mikawi, a judge at the South Cairo Court.
Mubarak has more wasta than most. Those currently running the country, and deciding such crucial matters as how much authority the newly elected parliament will have, are generals appointed by the ousted President. A few hundred protesters rallied outside the parliament's opening session this week, calling it a relatively nominal step on the road to democracy. "We are here to tell them that the revolution has not ended," said Mohamed Fat'hi, an accountant, who stood among the protesters. "We are here to tell them that we are still going to be in Tahrir, that our cousins were killed in Tahrir and that we have not seen justice." Those protesting outside of parliament are largely drawn from the secular liberal revolutionary groups that led the uprising but were eclipsed by Islamists moderate and radical once the country's electorate was asked to choose its leaders. Many of them now fear a pact that will enable the Islamists to rule in exchange for accepting immunity for the generals.
In Egyptian courtrooms, where there is no jury and Mikawi concedes judges frequently base their rulings on personal opinion or political allegiance, the power dynamic has changed little over the past year. "It's not about it being difficult to change, it's the uneasiness of touching the judicial system in Egypt," says Ezzat Khamis, the chief judge at the South Cairo Court. Regime-appointed judges like the 66-year-old Khamis have little incentive to change the system that brought them to power. "Till now, the justice system is fulfilling its duty in delivering justice to the people," says the old-guard judge. Mubarak's regime never interfered in the system either, he adds. "Nobody in any institution of this country has any say in the judges' ruling. The only thing that rules is the conscience and the law, and anyone who tries to affect a ruling from the President to the lowest employee will be tried."
But rights groups and many liberal judges and lawyers dispute Khamis' view. For years, the courts served as little more than a rubber stamp for the regime, they say, and when they ruled against the regime on issues like the release of political prisoners they were simply ignored. Ahead of the old order's rigged elections, the judges received pay rises to buy their silence, says Mikawi. The key to making real changes, he says, is creating an independent judiciary.
But with Mubarak's authoritarian shoes having been filled by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), little has changed, which is why so few officials have been held accountable for the deaths of democracy activists. "The Ministry of Justice chooses the investigators and what to investigate, and the SCAF rules the Ministry of Justice," Mikawi says. "And so what is the result of these investigations? The Maspero incident, Mohamed Mahmoud," he says, listing some of the clashes that left a total of nearly 80 protesters dead in the past three months of 2011. "Of course, we have nothing."
Perhaps anticipating trouble on the rebellion's anniversary, the SCAF on Tuesday repealed Egypt's Emergency Law. Wednesday will see a host of events and marches planned by political parties, officials, activists and even the military to celebrate last year's events. But others will go to protest. Says Mikawi: "The 25th of January is either going to be a birth certificate or a death certificate for the revolution." The staying power of the protest camp will signal that the revolution continues. But a poor showing will underscore the shift from the streets to the elected parliament as the locus of the push for democratization.
Mikawi is confident: a year ago, protesters achieved something momentous in just 18 days, and he believes they have the ability to do it again. "Of course we won't have the same numbers that we had on the first January 25th, but we will have numbers," he says. "We need just to send the message."
With reporting by Sharaf al-Houran / Cairo