I never imagined a day when I would see Saddam Hussein and Hosni Mubarak behind bars. Like millions of Arabs, I lived through the Egyptian revolt minute-by-minute, saluting the heroism of the Egyptian people, who were either shot by Egyptian security or stampeded upon by camels ridden by Mubarak's thugs.
I did not sympathize with Saddam when he was executed on the eve of the Eid al-Adha Muslim holiday back in December 2006. I tried to sympathize with him, however, as the hangman's noose was being placed around his neck. I tried hard. I could not find a single thing, however, worth praising about him. Regardless of what his opponents thought of him, however, the fact that he was executed under the watchful eye of the United States, at a time when Iraq was occupied, made him a national hero to millions in the Arab world.
That, too, did not earn my respect for the man; he had ruined the lives of entire families throughout 24 consecutive Eid al-Adha holidays during his long rule (1979 to 2003), either by arresting their children or killing them regardless of Muslim traditions or festivities. There only crime was having said "no" to Saddam Hussein.
Saddam, after all, was a pure autocrat -- and a mad one, for that matter, no different from his good friend Muammar al-Gaddafi. He was terrible with those who opposed him. He created a police state and monitored the lives -- and thought -- of both his enemies and his friends. He lived by the sword. And it is only just that he was destined to also die by the sword.
When watching footage of Saddam being hanged, I recalled every memory I had of the man. All they did was send shivers down my spine -- reminding me that Saddam ought to have been executed 100 times. The only regret is that the Iraqis could not topple and kill him without help from the Americans.
The same, more or less, can be said about Hosni Mubarak, who stood trial last week in Cairo and faces accusations that can lead to the death penalty. I also tried hard to sympathize with Mubarak as he was brought into the court room dressed in a white gown on a hospital bed, along with his two sons and former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly. Neither his old age nor the humiliating state he was brought in, however, managed to trigger any emotions.
Like Saddam, Mubarak created a police state and monitored the lives -- and thought -- of both his enemies and his friends alike. But to be fair to the man, he was nowhere as brutal or autocratic, allowing certain political freedoms from 2005 onwards. Unlike Saddam, however, he did not live by the sword. The fundamental difference between Saddam's trial in 2006 and Mubarak's trial in 2011 is that one was carried out under U.S. occupation, under the watchful eye of the Bush Administration, whereas the second was done by the glorious people of Egypt -- with no foreign meddling whatsoever.
Having said that, I will try to play the devil's advocate and say that although Saddam Hussein and Hosni Mubarak deserve the fate that they received, the presidential institution in both Iraq and Egypt should have been more properly respected. Throughout the world, presidents and senior officials are brought to court after leaving office. That is how things should be in a democracy, but that is usually done in a dignified manner not because of individuals, but rather because of the institutions that these individuals represented for years.
Jacques Chirac, for example, is currently facing trial -- but he is not brought to court in his pajamas; he wears a suit, walks into court with dignity and goes home once the hearing is over. That is not out of respect for Chirac himself, but rather for the institution of the French presidency that he represented from 1995 to 2007.
The same applies to Bill Clinton, when he was drilled for the infamous Lewinski ordeal in 1998 and 1999. He was impeached by the House of Representatives on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice -- but that, too, was done with minimum decency, because he was President of the United States of America.
Clinton suffered tremendous insult in the U.S. media, and very humiliating questions while being questioned -- but then again, he and Chirac were not arrested, put in a cage like Mubarak or handcuffed like Saddam. To make one thing crystal clear: I am not comparing Clinton or Chirac to Saddam and Mubarak; their crimes, after all, were nowhere as severe. Clinton had oral sex; he did not shoot demonstrators on the streets of Washington, D.C. Additionally, we cannot forget that while Clinton and Chirac were democratically elected heads of state, Saddam was someone who came to power by military coup, whereas Mubarak was a "president by accident." To emphasize: I am not comparing Mubarak and Saddam to Chirac and Clinton as presidents.
Everybody should sit back and ask what these trials intend to achieve for the future of Egypt and Iraq. Are they trying to promote revenge or justice? With no doubt, they should serve as an unforgettable warning to whomever comes to power, reminding them that killing people is an unforgivable crime that ought to be punished. It cannot go by unnoticed in this day and age. No leader in the "new world" should be allowed to enslave, rob and kill his people.
That needs to be done, however, with minimum respect for presidential institutions. These people, after all, were symbols of state for over 30 years. They are to blame, however, for creating cult figures around themselves, hailed as Gods rather than human presidents. That resulted in ordinary people no longer differentiating between Mubarak the president and Egypt the nation, or Saddam Hussein and Iraq. The two dictators merged their image, very consciously, with that of their countries. Breaking that association needs time, and might take an entire generation to achieve. Until that happens, their institutions need to be respected.
A Lesson From Syrian History
In March 1949, General Hosni al-Zaim seized power in Damascus, toppling Syria's democratically elected President Shukri al-Quwatli. Zaim, who established a short-lived military dictatorship, used and abused the state for four months, printing his image on paper money, plastering his picture on the front page of Syrian newspapers, and issuing stamps carrying his photograph. He, too, was toppled and killed only 137 days later by angry officers in the Syrian Army.
So furious were they that after killing him, they denied Hosni al-Zaim a proper funeral. Rather, they took his corpse to a remote village in the vicinity of the Syrian capital and buried it in an unknown spot, with no proper grave or signpost. Three months later, Syria's newly elected President Hashem al-Atasi created a committee to "find Hosni al-Zaim's body." When they did, he ordered that it be brought back to Damascus, given a state military funeral, and buried accordingly in the Martyr's Cemetery. Atasi, it must be noted, hated Hosni al-Zaim -- but love and hate had nothing to do with his action.
He told his aids:
"True, Zaim did not kill anybody when he came to power, but he killed Syrian democracy by allowing officers to meddle in political affairs. God will judge him for what he did to Syria. What matters to me is that he is treated with dignity -- he was after all, President of the Syrian Republic. No matter how hard his opponents try, they will never be able to erase that fact from Syrian history. So long as it is there, then Hosni al-Zaim deserves presidential honors -- not for his sake, but for that of the Syrian Presidency."
To sum up, down with Mubarak -- yet hail the Egyptian Presidency.
Sami Moubayed is a university professor, historian, and Editor-in-Chief of Forward Magazine in Syria. This article appeared in the Huffington Post.