Court trials have unintended consequences.

When President Moshe Katsav was forced to resign over rape allegations in 2007, and to submit to prosecution, Israel’s enemies throughout the Middle East rubbed their hands with glee at the sight of his humiliation. For they saw his humbling as Israel’s, and evidence that its corruption ran right up to the top.

In Egypt, where president Hosni Mubarak had been ruling for 25 years and had insisted on maintaining his predecessor Anwar Sadat’s highly unpopular peace treaty with Israel, his enemies took further encouragement from the Zionist head of state’s disgrace, and dreamt of something similar happening to their own. Katsav’s fall was given great prominence throughout the Arab media. Whatever happens in Israel is always of major interest to Arab readers, as their own countries are usually hungry for tales of corruption involving their leaders. They rely on Israel especially for spice in the news; it is rarely surpassed in piquancy.

Katsav was not the first Middle East head of state to be put on trial. Four years before Katsav was convicted, the ‘Butcher of Baghdad,’ Saddam Hussein, was found guilty of murdering 146 Iraqi Shi’ites and was hanged. But this was only made possible by the US invasion, and nobody, even in their wildest dreams, could fantasize about that happening to Mubarak; indeed, he was seen by most of his opponents as a US lackey.

Katsav was convicted on December 30, 2010, with near certainty of a prison sentence. The story spread like wildfire through the Egyptian media: “Israeli President Convicted!” The following night, a Coptic church was bombed in Alexandria, killing dozens of Christians.

Once again, Mubarak’s regime had proven incapable of protecting the country’s second largest religious group, in spite of having all the powers of a police state. Several families, in anger, refused Mubarak’s condolences, and his image fell further. Some date the origins of the current revolution to that event.

For years, the regime had justified its iron grip on power and lack of democracy by pointing to the constant threat from Islamist fanatics. Recent elections had been a farce. Many wanted Mubarak removed, like Katsav.

Two weeks after Katsav’s conviction, Tunisia’s leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, following protests caused by the self-immolation of humiliated vegetable trader Muhammad Bouazizi in December. Ben Ali was later tried and convicted in absentia. Egyptian protests intensified, and Mubarak himself was toppled and put on trial – the elderly, ailing tyrant, incarcerated on a hospital bed in a cage.

The impossible had become reality. The quintessential paradigm of durable authoritarianism is now being tried in persona.

WILL MUBARAK’S trial, in turn, hasten the fall of other Muslim leaders? Muammar Gaddafi has shown total, albeit grudging, compliance with Western wishes in the past to avoid that fate. He told us years ago that it was the sight of the humiliated Saddam Hussein, his teeth being examined like a horse’s, that persuaded him to give up Libya’s nuclear weapons program. How have we Westerners rewarded him for this most valuable of sacrifices? We have bombed and blasted him. He has said he prefers to die rather than leave his country. This seems to me entirely credible. He will not allow himself to be taken prisoner and put on trial.

Bashar Assad has been so frightened by the Mubarak trial that his media have totally ignored it, even though it is the most sensational trial in Arab history. He will fight tooth and nail to avoid meeting the same fate. The chances of his peacefully stepping down have nose-dived.

As for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, many Iranians would be happy to see him on trial as well. But unless Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei moves against him, he will stay put as president and continue to use all means – however bloody – to suppress even a hint of opposition to the two of them.

For all of these still-sitting presidents, Mubarak’s (and to a lesser degree, Katsav’s) continuing trials will intensify their resolve not to forfeit power.

Expect more repression.

The writer is an international lawyer who has organized asylum for the opponents of many Arab regimes, and is a frequent commentator on North African and Islamic affairs.

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