Mubarak’s public trial serves as warning to other dictators

The Arab Spring, a common refer- ence to the popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa that began last year, offers many lessons, but none will be as poignant as the one from the public trial of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on charges of corruption and conspiring in the deadly shooting of protesters. The 18-day revolution that began in late January resulted in 846 people killed and thousands injured.

Mubarak, who had ruled Egypt for three decades with an iron fist, resigned Feb. 11. He has been in custody in a hospital in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-sheik since April. The country’s prosecutor general announced this week that the 83-year-old would face a criminal court. According to the Associated Press, it would be the first time in modern history an Arab leader is sent to trial solely by his own people.

Iraq’s leader Saddam Hussein was toppled during the U.S. invasion in 2003 and sentenced three years later to death for killing 140 Shiites.

Tunisia’s ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has been charged along with his wife of inciting violence in the bloody crackdown of the popular uprising in that North African country. Ben Ali has fled to Saudi Arabia, which has refused Tunisian requests to extradite him.

But Mubarak’s trial will send shock waves through the region where dictatorial rule is the norm. Demonstrations and protests in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen, among others, show that people who have long been kept under foot are at the breaking point — just as they were in Egypt. The rulers of these countries are clinging to power with the use of force, but it is increasingly clear that the violence has become a clarion call.

In Libya, strongman Moammar Gadhafi’s use of the army and other paramilitary forces to repel a growing rebel movement has resulted in a NATO bombing campaign of military installations that began two months ago. Gadhafi has ignored demands that he step down and, instead, has unleashed his heavily armed, brutal forces against his countrymen. The bloodshed has shocked even the depraved leaders in the Arab world. That is why the NATO-led bombing of the capital Tripoli and other parts of Libya has been met with relative silence.

But, as the criminal case against Mubarak proceeds towards a public trial, Gadhafi and others of his ilk will have reason to worry.

Heinous crimes

It isn’t only the former Egyptian leader who is being called to account for the heinous crimes committed during the revolution. He and his two sons were charged with abusing power to amass wealth, enriching associates and accepting bribes. A close associate of Mubarak, Hussein Salem, also was charged with bribery. He is at large. The two sons are in detention in a Cairo prison and have been accused for other crimes.

There’s another lesson to be gleaned from the decision to prosecute Mubarak: The leaders who replace the dictators as a result of the uprising of the people had better be willing to quickly implement the changes demanded. In Egypt, there was a threat of a second revolution if the military rulers now in charge of the country did not bring Mubarak to trial with the death penalty hanging over his head.

Free and open elections for a new president are also being demanded.

The winds of change are sweeping the Middle East and there’s not much the dictatorial leaders can do to avoid the fallout.

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