Few people in the Middle East would have expected to see the day when Hosni Mubarak would go on trial on charges of corruption and complicity in the killing of protesters. Indeed, many throughout Egypt and the region had begun to wonder whether the revolution was all a ruse, with Mr. Mubarak covertly running the country from the seaside resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. Rumours of Mr. Mubarak’s whereabouts and health were rampant, and most doubted the trial would ever happen. Then it finally did.
The opening day of the trial will be remembered in Middle Eastern history: a modern pharaoh’s fall from grace. Caged in a makeshift cell and lying on a hospital bed, a humiliated Mr. Mubarak was reduced to an image of an old man, an image that many protesters in Egypt and the wider Middle East were hoping for since the very start of the Arab Spring. It will inspire regional protest movements to continue to demand political and economic reforms and to seek accountability from their leaders.
But Mr. Mubarak’s trial, although quickly adjourned, has unintended consequences: It teaches incumbent Arab governments to either repress their protest movements or else face a similar fate.
In Syria, the government of Bashar al-Assad has chosen brutality in its bid to crush the protests and prevent the rise of opposition movements from organizing a united political voice. The last thing the regime wants is a symbolic or literal gathering of a Tahrir Square in Syria. Its army has surrounded the restive cities of Hama and Homs, its tanks shelling Hama.
With very little concern over Western economic sanctions against a country that has remained insulated from the globalized world economy, with continued indifference about international reputation, and with the reality that few of the cash-strapped Western nations are apt to finance or support another NATO military intervention, the Assad regime will step up its brutality. This doesn’t bode well for the civilians of Hama, Homs and the other cities that challenge the regime’s violence against protesters.
If there is a model for Arab governments to follow, perhaps it’s Bahrain. As the cameras were fixed on Libya and Yemen, the Bahraini government, with the support of Saudi Arabia, entered the Pearl Roundabout in Manama and crushed the pro-democracy movement. The roundabout is now empty, and Bahrain’s rulers are intact. There are trials going on, but it’s Bahraini protesters and their political supporters who are facing charges of undermining national security. The Bahraini rulers used all of their imported military might to stop the protest movement from gaining any traction in this once-burgeoning example of a move toward pluralist democracy.
So, while Syria’s protest movements and opposition groups may be emboldened to take to the streets by watching the most popular of Egyptian soap operas, the trial of Hosni Mubarak and his cronies, the Assad regime will internalize this zero-sum game as a choice: be put in a prison cage for the world’s cameras, or crush the protesters without fear of impunity. For the helpless civilians of Hama, Homs and other cities who dare challenge Mr. al-Assad’s authority, they will feel the wrath of the unintended consequences of the lessons learned from Mr. Mubarak’s trial.
Bessma Momani is a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont.