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08.04.11

How to Try a Dictator

As Egypt hauls former President Mubarak to court, envious Iraqis regret that it took an American invasion to bring down Saddam. Babak Dehghanpisheh on the lessons for the Arab world.

The contrast between the two couldn't be more dramatic. When former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was rolled into a Cairo courtroom on a stretcher Wednesday morning, he looked feeble and barely mouthed his responses. Nearly six years ago, another former president, Saddam Hussein, struck a completely different tone: He strode defiantly into a courtroom in Baghdad holding a Koran.     

At first glance, it would seem that both trials, historic milestones in their own right, were about bringing a dictator to justice. Here were two modern Arab heads of state accused of killing large numbers of their own people. But they are perceived in completely different ways across the Middle East and will have a different impact. “Saddam Hussein wasn’t brought down by the Iraqi people. It was the United States who brought him down,” says Sami Baroudi, a political science professor at the Lebanese American University in Beirut. “In Egypt, the people made this trial happen. It's empowering for those people who were behind this revolution. This will give people a sense that dictators can be brought to justice.”

Unlike Mubarak, Saddam realized the value of good theater. He mocked the judge and declared, "I am the president of Iraq."

I was part of the press pool allowed into the courtroom for the first day of Saddam's trial in October 2005. We were seated in a small room adjoining the court and looked in through a glass window. When Saddam walked in, there were audible gasps from some of the journalists and Iraqi officials in the room. Perhaps it was the shock of seeing a man accused of such incredible atrocities—torture, mass executions and even gassing his own people—in person. Or maybe it was the realization that Hannah Arendt was right after all: Evil is banal and it just walked in wearing a shabby grey suit. One Iraqi official sat next to me clutching a black and white picture of his brother who had been killed by Saddam's thugs for belonging to a banned party. "I've been waiting 35 years for this,” he whispered.

Unlike Mubarak, Saddam realized the value of good theater. He mocked the judge and declared, “I am the president of Iraq.” When guards took his arms to escort him out of the courtroom, he got into a scuffle and tried to push them off.

All of the theatrics didn't change the outcome, though. When Saddam was hanged just over a year later, the execution gave the impression that the judiciary was operating with a sectarian agenda. “The trial and execution [of Saddam] exacerbated the sectarian split in Iraq,” says Baroudi. Mubarak’s trial is likely to have the opposite effect. Even though there were minor clashes between protestors and Mubarak supporters outside the courthouse, the scene inside the court was all business. Mubarak and his sons Alaa and Gemal were brought in to the room in their jailhouse whites—just like any other defendant—and had to plod through the minutiae of the court proceeding.

From a distance, many Iraqis watched enviously. “Saddam’s trial was completely different,” says Humam Aziz, a 33-year old telecommunications engineer in Baghdad. “It makes me so proud that Mubarak was removed by the will of his own people. Iraq is still occupied and unstable. I hope the Egyptians will see a way to get out of the dark times and make their country stable unlike Iraq.”

While ordinary people in the region may experience a catharsis by seeing the Mubarak family in court, the region’s remaining despots won’t be feeling the same. In fact, the takeaway point is likely to be that they should ramp up the crackdown. “For the ones clinging to power like [Libya’s Muammar] Gaddafi and [Syria’s Bashar] Assad, this is an additional incentive to use the utmost power they have,” says Baroudi. “To them, this humiliation of Mubarak is probably worse than meeting your fate by being killed.”

As the trial continues, one thing is certain: Both the despots and ordinary people will be watching closely.

With reporting by Hussam Ali in Baghdad