Sisi’s Balancing Act: Inside the Mubarak Verdict

Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on trial

Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on trial

By Ben Tannenbaum

Photograph of Hosni Mubarak courtesy of

The Egyptian justice system has never held a reputation for probity. In Genesis, Pharaoh arbitrarily jailed Joseph on false allegations of adultery. The system remains flawed today, as the police commit abuses that would make Lenny Briscoe blush. Nevertheless, looking at high-profile court decisions can shed some insight into the political direction of the country. For example, this month Hosni Mubarak- Egypt’s president from 1981-2011- received a three year sentence on corruption charges. Due to his past time spent in prison, Mubarak will likely go free soon. Yet despite the lenient verdict, the Abdel Fattah el-Sisi administration has sought to avoid trumpeting its ties to Mubarak too loudly. The government’s handling of the Mubarak trial reveals an attempted balancing act to support the old regime without provoking opposition voices.

On the surface, the Sisi government shares an ideological affinity with Mubarak-era policies. Both Sisi and Mubarak staunchly oppose the Muslim Brotherhood. In 1993, Mubarak implemented a heavy-fisted crackdown upon the Brotherhood. Since claiming power in 2013, Sisi has similarly suppressed Brotherhood activities. Likewise, Sisi restored much of Mubarak’s regional policy. During his presidency, Mubarak fostered a relatively stable working relationship with Israel. Sisi also has generally sought to cooperate with Israel, viewing the Hamas terrorist organization as a larger threat. Mubarak additionally sought to align Egypt with Saudia Arabia, a course that Sisi has followed. Sisi’s administration looks like an Egyptian Thermidor, a return to the old conservative ideals. Given their shared military backgrounds and similar visions for Egypt, it seems natural that Sisi would free Mubarak.

However, the handling of the case also illustrates Sisi’s desire to appease political dissidents. Throughout the extended legal proceedings, Sisi has worked to separate himself personally from Mubarak’s case. This absence from the public-eye indicates that Sisi wants to avoid excessive association with the Mubarak government. By the same token, Mubarak’s controversial sons have generally stayed out of the limelight, likely on government request. Further, the fact that Mubarak was convicted of anything- rather than receiving a blanket acquittal- indicates a desire to appease the opposition. Despite Sisi’s apparent stranglehold on power, the Mubarak case remains a sore subject for the remnants of opposition. Last November, after courts dropped a different set of charges against Mubarak, dissenters held mass protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Such rallies represent Sisi’s nightmare scenario, and this time he appeared eager to avoid a reprise. The November protests indicated that the Egyptian opposition still has potential to make Sisi sweat. As a result, the government has worked to handle the Mubarak case without unleashing resistance protests.

Like any leader, Sisi has had to balance between competing factions. Mubarak’s pending release serves as a sop to key government backers. Yet the toned-down public handling of the case indicates a desire not to provoke opposition voices. Of course, throughout his rule Sisi has typically proved heavy-handed towards dissidents. The death sentence issued against Mohamed Morsi refutes the notion of Sisi’s lenience. Yet in the Mubarak case, he felt the need to proceed cautiously. Similarly, the recent release of prominent protesters also reflects moderation by the regime. This restraint illustrates that Sisi still needs to avoid antagonizing dissidents. While ostensibly defeated, the Egyptian opposition still seems to hold some influence over Sisi’s decision-making.

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