On November 29, an Egyptian court dismissed charges of conspiracy to murder protesters against former president Hosni Mubarak, while also acquitting the former interior minister and six security commanders. News media reported heavily on the reactions of Egyptians to the court’s decision, but what about the decision’s repercussions on the rest of the region?
For Syria, the consequences of the Egyptian justice system are tremendous. After the court announced its decision, many Syrians took to social media decrying formal prosecutions and calling for a Muammar Qaddafi-style execution of top leaders as the only way to achieve justice in Syria. Many in Syria see an either/or dichotomy for transitional justice – either they must take vengeance into their own hands or the perpetrators of countless human rights crimes go unpunished. From the public execution of Qaddafi to the show trial of Saddam Hussein to the recent decision in Egypt, the Middle East is full of examples of how transitional justice can go wrong, further reinforcing the false choice of only two extremes.
While Mubarak’s trial has many implications for Egypt, it also points to a larger concern about the arbitrariness of the region’s judicial systems and the phenomenon of “Victors’ Justice.” The theory of Victors’ Justice dictates that the victor of post-revolution Egypt (the military establishment) can allow Mubarak to walk free while the losers (liberals and Islamists) face prolonged detentions or the death penalty, whereas if Mohamed Morsi was still president, the roles would have likely been reversed.
The winner-takes-all outcomes in Egypt, Libya, and Iraq indicate major flaws in the independence of judicial systems in the Middle East, and necessitate a concerted effort to counter the attitudes that lead to these distorted outcomes. Otherwise, Syrians watching the legal developments in the region may feel compelled to dismiss transitional justice out of hand and use vigilantism to ‘right’ the wrongs of the past. Although this option may be immediately appealing when justice seems out of reach, it is extremely dangerous – as shown in other Middle Eastern countries – because it will very likely prolong the conflict and create a cycle of unhealed wounds, putting long-term peace and stability even further out of reach.
Given the extreme challenges and grievances in the Syrian situation, serious attention must be given to how Syria can avoid both false ‘justice’ and vigilante ‘justice’ – neither of which will be effective in healing the country. Organizations like SJAC, and the international community as a whole, must take decisive action to ensure that real, independent, and effective justice mechanisms are achievable for the Syrian people to counter their current perceptions of justice.
SJAC is committed to dialoguing more frequently and in a more relatable manner to Syrians regarding the options for transitional justice so that they better understand that justice comes in many forms. SJAC’s goal is to empower Syrians to take an active role in pursuing the available options and pushing for independence and fairness in the justice processes. SJAC also aims to bring Syrian views and needs into the discourse on justice and accountability to ensure that the international community does not jump start a procedure that is disconnected from the people on the ground. SJAC’s public consultation series is part of that mission.
Similarly, the international community needs to vocally condemn the Egyptian justice system’s obvious bias in acquitting Mubarak. As examples, the United Nations can establish a monitoring system for local trials of high level officials, the U.S. and other countries that give aid to the Egyptian government can apply pressure for reform, and the entire world can admonish these types of outcomes. When the regional implications are so great, the international community cannot sit back in apathy.
Since the Nuremberg trials, Victors’ Justice has been labeled a relic of the past. It is up to us to ensure that the past does not resurrect itself in the Middle East.