Whatever happens to Hosni Mubarak now, you can be sure the rest of the Arab world’s beleaguered dictators are watching. Images of the Egyptian ex-president who stepped down under pressure of popular revolt, shuttled into a cage to face court from his hospital bed, have played repeatedly on cable news.
Looking gaunt and diminished, Mubarak pleaded not guilty to charges of corruption and ordering the killing of protesters earlier this year. If found guilty, he could be sentenced to death.
That the former strongman and erstwhile U.S. ally was forced to court by the military council that at one time supported him and then pushed him to flee hasn’t been lost on other leaders who rely on military strength to put down their opposition.
Simply put, every bad thing that happens to Mubarak will only make autocrats like Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Libya’s Col. Muammer el-Qaddafi cling to power that much more fiercely and ruthlessly.
Whatever dreams there may be of a peaceful retirement in the same country can now be put aside. Mubarak had escaped to the Egyptian Red Sea resort town of Sharm el Sheik, and it was there, ostensibly, that everyone believed he would end his days. But he and those close to him hadn’t accounted for the bloodthirst of the millions of Egyptians who want to see him hang.
There’s no greater fascination for a discontented populace than watching a former untouchable, almost immortal, tyrant brought down to earth. Footage of deposed Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein having his hair picked for lice and his mouth swabbed after his capture by U.S. troops played endlessly on Iraqi state television. Mobile phone recordings of his hanging beamed onto the Internet and around the world. Now Arab stations show Mubarak craning his neck from his hospital bed, addressing the court from “‘the cage of the accused.” Al-Jazeera ran a live blog to report the day’s proceedings.
European and African envoys trying to persuade Qaddafi to leave Tripoli, with the possibility that he may be able to stay in Libya -- something the rebels reject -- now have an even tougher task ahead. Syria’s Assad brooks no truce for now; and with Washington unable to do more than cast strong rhetoric in his direction, he will be even more resistant to compromise.
In Syria now, military tanks occupy central Hama and human rights activists claim at least 90 people have been killed since this latest crackdown by Assad began on Sunday.
In Libya, rebels continue to battle pro-Qaddafi forces, gaining little ground even with the support of NATO bombing campaigns. Reuters quoted rebels who were enjoying the television footage of Mubarak in court and hoping they too will be able to celebrate a similar fate for their own leader, and soon.
Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh still clings to power from Saudi Arabia, using his sons to forge new pacts with tribes as the protest movement there pushes into its sixth month.
Tunisia’s deposed ruler Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia in January, and despite claims in recent weeks that he always meant to return, it’s unlikely he will now after a court in Tunis last month sentenced him in absentia to more than 15 years in prison for illegal possession of drugs and weapons. That’s on top of an earlier 35-year-sentence issued in June.
Qaddafi, Assad, and the others must know a similar fate -- and possibly worse -- would await them should they choose to abdicate as the United States and Europe are demanding they do.
Yet it’s a delicate balance for the powers that replace the dictators. While Mubarak lay helpless in his cage, hundreds of Egyptians protested outside the courtroom. After Saddam Hussein was executed near on New Year’s Eve 2006, the year that followed in Iraq shifted the ethnic landscape as Sunnis and Shiites battled for domination. The current turbulence in Yemen has heightened predictions that it could soon turn into a failed state.
There may be some solace for Qaddafi and Assad that their capitulation could result in riots, killings, or even political upheaval. But they’re not likely to want to find that out anytime soon.