Mubarak's Life Sentence: A Game of Smoke and Mirrors in Egypt?

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Ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak sits inside a cage in a courtroom during his verdict hearing in Cairo on June 2, 2012. A judge sentenced Mubarak to life in prison after convicting him of involvement in the murder of protesters during the uprising that ousted him last year.

In a run-down maze of slums with electrical wires and laundry tangled across Cairo's mustard sky, Umm Mohammed, 55, put her hands to her face and fell silently to her knees when she heard the news. An Egyptian court sentenced ex-President Hosni Mubarak to life in prison for his complicity in the killing of about 850 protesters during last year's uprising. Once the equivalent of a modern-day pharaoh, the 84-year-old Mubarak is the first Arab ruler to be brought to court by his own people.

"He's done! He's done!" Her neighbors applauded from a sparsely stocked fruit stand, hunched around a small television set. They watched as a visibly thinner Mubarak, donning sunglasses with his arms crossed defiantly, heard the verdict from a gurney in the defendants cage.

But Umm Mohammed stood still, emotionless. Her son, Mohammed Fareed, 23, was one of many protestors who died from gunshots near Tahrir Square. "I feel like I lost both my son and my country. So Mubarak stays in a nice jail? Now what? My son is dead and the revolution has turned my country into a mess. I just want to move on. God protect us."

And her sobriety spread as the cheers and exaltation in Cairo over the verdict were quickly dampened. Mubarak and his two sons, Gamal and Alaa, who had tears in their eyes, were acquitted on charges of corruption. Mubarak's former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly also received a life sentence for the deaths of demonstrators but the charges against other Interior Ministry officials were dismissed. (The Mubarak sons were not freed: they were kept in custody to face trial on other charges of corruption.) Judge Ahmed Refaat insisted the 10-month trial had been a fair one, and before issuing the verdict, rhapsodized about the brave uprising that ousted Mubarak. He called Mubarak's rule "30 years of intense darkness...the blackness of a chilly winter night."

But critics have argued that the investigation had been flawed and highly politicized. It occurred under the military rule of a council of generals who took power at Mubarak's ouster. What's more, instead of a sweeping examination of the systemic abuses under his rule, the prosecutors rushed the case to trial last April in an apparent attempt to placate street protesters. "The same people who have killed and tortured Egyptians are now free to go back to their jobs," says prominent activist Dalia Ziada, who is incensed over the verdicts and let it be known over Twitter. "They're manipulating us with an illusion that we are winning, but in fact they're undermining all our efforts. Our 18-day revolution has been killed in 15 months."

Michael Hanna, an Egyptian-American analyst at the Century Foundation, says that the trial seemingly throws the Egyptian people a bone with Mubarak's conviction but it really pokes them in the eyes. Mubarak and al-Adly's convictions are based on their failure to stop the killing once it started. That leaves a logical hole in the verdict: was no one is responsible for the ordering of killing? Hanna says the trial symbolized Egypt's faltering army-led transition and was woefully compromised from the start. The verdict is almost certain to be appealed on both sides, he says, and lawyers involved have said that many questionable procedural decisions during the yearlong trial had left ample grounds to continue the legal fight. "No one is being held accountable, and so the Ministry of Interior and the whole security apparatus is left unscathed and can go back to sleep in their same beds every night," Hanna says. "It's business as usual."

Steven Cook, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the trial was just a show — a function of political pressure from Egyptians who wanted revenge for Hosni Mubarak's crimes. "Justice was never possible under Egypt's present circumstances. Now people need to live with the consequences," he says. "A truth and reconciliation commission would have been a better way to go."

The verdict comes at a crucial time, smack-dab between two rounds of Egypt's first truly contested presidential elections. In the runoff vote for the presidency on June 16-17, Egyptians must choose between two of the most historically powerful and divisive forces in Egyptian society: Ahmed Shafik, the last prime minister under Mubarak, and Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that struggled for decades against a state that unabashedly repressed it.

Shafik, who served in the Mubarak regime, is running on a tough security platform, has found support among many who are distressed by 15 months of a security vacuum and economic turmoil, and are nostalgic for the old order and even the man who led it. If interpreted as a bold sign that justice has been served, the verdict could bolster support for Shafik, an undeniable symbol of the Mubarak era, who proudly lauds the former president as one of his role models. Or it could hurt his credibility, with Mubarak's repressive security apparatus being seen as let off the hook.

Ahmed Riab, a worker at a café in an upscale neighborhood in Cairo, says he's refusing "silly calls" by protesters to take to the streets because of the verdict. He's voting for Shafik on the hopes that he can restore order and stability. "It's the end, Mubarak's behind bars, what more do these people want?" he huffs. "Mubarak behind bars is a warning to Shafik that he could be next if he continues the same system."

Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, reasons that, if anything, the verdict hurts Shafik, turning the past into a more salient campaign issue. "In the next two weeks before runoffs, all the Muslim Brotherhood needs to do is simply remind the people that this is a man whose boss and friend was just put behind bars," he says. "It'll now be harder to elect an ally of a man who is now serving a life sentence."

The Muslim Brotherhood has already called for nationwide protests in response to the verdict, with Yasser Aly, a spokesman for Morsi's campaign, calling the verdict "legally absurd" and calling for a retrial. At the same time, more than 150 trials involving policemen accused of killing protesters during the revolution have reportedly ended mostly in acquittals.

Well-known lawyer and human rights activist Ragia Omran says today is a "devastation for the revolution." She listened to the verdict in her car, en route to what she calls another "judicial disaster" that's even more indicative of an old regime that still presides over a deeply divided country. Renowned Egyptian activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah and his sister Mona Seif have been summoned for interrogation and accused of involvement in an arson attack earlier in the week that damaged presidential candidate Shafik's campaign headquarters.

"It's extremely ironic that Mubarak's cronies and sons get off, yet on the same day, activists who spent time in corrupt military jails are now being interrogated on ridiculous claims," she says. "The regime is relying on the naiveté of the Egyptian public, who they think will be appeased by the figureheads being sentenced. But this was never a revolution against two men. It's against the system."

Hanna says the simultaneous interrogations of activists like Abdel-Fattah is just one more black eye on the perception that Egypt's judicial system is independent and not deeply politicized. "At this point," he says, "this is all turning into an over-the-top caricature that's bordering on parody."

Omran isn't amused as she heads into the prosecutor's office, lending her support to Abdel-Fattah. "My blood is boiling. The same system prevails. It's just one more reminder, like we needed one, that the revolution is not complete." She stays on her cell phone for the rest of the day, fielding calls about the police outside the Mubarak trial harassing and arresting Egyptians furious at the verdicts (fights broke out in and out of court soon after the verdicts were announced). "It just never stops."

After reportedly putting up a fuss, Mubarak was put in a helicopter and flown to Tora Prison to start serving his sentence. There is only resignation back in Umm Mohammed's neighborhood. On the street, she stood feebly, holding a cracked plastic-framed portrait of her deceased son. "I wish these protests never happened. I wish we could go back to the ways things were," she cries. "What good has come of any of this?" She walked back to her one-room flat and put the portrait of her son back on her wall before arranging a sparse lunch of bread and cheese. "It's just another day," she says. "No change. Just another day."

With reporting by Sharaf al-Hourani/Cairo