Mubarak can still face Egyptian justice

The final chapter of the Mubarak era depends on truly “getting justice”, and that means giving Egypt’s judiciary the space and time to work.

When Egypt's ex-president Hosni Mubarak was sentenced to life in prison last June, many Egyptians erupted in celebration. Justice - that vague concept measured in blood and sweat over weeks of unrelenting protest - had finally been delivered. The ejected 84-year-old leader, and his minister of interior, Habib El Adly, were convicted of the murder of unarmed revolutionaries.

As one veiled woman in downtown Cairo said at the time: "We brought the president to justice."

Many in Egypt might see things differently now. After an Egyptian appeals court threw out the guilty verdicts and accepted an appeal from Mubarak and El Adly, both men will be retried at a date to be set. Thousands gathered in Cairo at the verdict; Mubarak supporters and families of those who lost their lives during the revolution clashed violently. At least 25 people were injured.

The chaos on the streets is emblematic of the chaos clouding this decision, and the original verdict. Both the defence and prosecutors had appealed the June results, for different reasons; defence lawyers sought an acquittal, prosecutors wanted tougher terms.

Clearly, questions remain. Did the 84-year-old Mubarak deserve a life sentence in the absence of a technical evidence that proves the death of victims on specific orders from him? The head judge in the trial, Ahmed Refaat, said that he made his judgment based on Mubarak's failure to prevent the 900 protesters' deaths even though there was no medical evidence that provides sufficient information. That rationale will once again be challenged.

How this issue is debated and ultimately settled is, in many ways, a sideshow to Egypt's true troubles: its economy is crumbling, its constitution is contested, and its politicians are paralysed by populism and ideology. For President Mohammed Morsi, this court decision will no doubt complicate his ability to navigate these and other challenges.

But in the end, the final chapter of the Mubarak era depends on truly "getting justice". And that means giving Egypt's judiciary the space and time to work. As constitutional law scholar Yahya Al Gamal told The National after the retrial decision: "The judiciary is still solid and still fair". For Egypt's sake, it can't afford to be otherwise.