Letter from Cairo.
In Egypt, politics are not just something you read about in the newspapers or watch on TV. They are a personal matter, something you feel and that usually hurts. Such was the case last year when President Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign. Midan Tahrir derived its power from the complete and fervent consensus that Mubarak, not just the president but the father figure, must go. Egyptians had lived with him for 30 years and knew him well, even though he never bothered to know them, had in fact continually underestimated and sold them short. More than treason, his was an intimate betrayal that demanded payment in kind. I'm sure that the ageing autocrat watching media coverage of the millions damning him last January was bewildered as much by their contempt as by their vehemence.
The drama of symbolic patricide entered its final act on 2 June, when a judge sentenced the 84-year-old Mubarak to life imprisonment. Never before had Egyptians held a leader accountable for his acts. But in a country where justice had so long been denied, its meaning varied widely. Many were satisfied with Mubarak's sentencing and anxious to turn the page, especially with run-offs in the election of a new president on the horizon. The knowledge that the highest the land would end his days in jail brought closure to many but only whet others' appetite for vengeance, particularly but not exclusively those who lost a loved one in the turmoil of the last 18 months.
Take Suleiman, a rubbish collector I've known for years. Short and slight, he has only one, cataract-clouded eye and a back bent from carrying heavy loads. He's old now, so his son picks up the trash I leave beside the door of my fifth floor fiat, but he comes by monthly for their salary. When I asked what he thought about Mubarak's sentence he laughed derisively. "If I could," he said "I would tear the flesh from his body, piece by piece."
It was startling to hear such bitterness from this unassuming man but on second thoughts it made good sense. His words echoed the Friday sermons howled endlessly on loudspeakers at the countless improvised mosques citywide, describing in excruciating detail the tortures of hell. Considering the hell on earth that Suleiman has endured, along with that of millions of similarly marginalised Egyptians, you understood how Mubarak became a focus for anger, the embodiment of all that was wrong in Egypt. For a moment Suleiman was transformed into a wrathful deity, the thirst for retribution gleaming from his eye.
It seems only fitting that Mubarak's sentencing opened a powerful public debate about standards of justice. Since his sons were acquitted along with officials implicated in the killing of protestors, the verdict was deemed more political than just. But how, some asked, could the judiciary have entirely escaped the general decay suffered by all Egyptian institutions owing to years of corruption and neglect? Along side calls for a retrial there was a sinking sense that justice, or rather a system capable of delivering it equitably, is but one of the many goals that remain elusive if not entirely out of Egypt's current reach.
Some may wish to revive Mubarak as the target for their outrage, but in death, he will face the highest judge. He is essentially gone but the anger remains, alongside the need for a realistic assessment, however painful, of the damage these decades left behind, both personal and political.