Who stole the strawberries?

International Herald Tribune Daily News Egypt

August 3 2011

Philip Whitfield

CAIRO: Egypt prepares for its star-chamber global TV production. Humphrey Bogart’s penultimate Hollywood role portrayed the despotic Commander Queeg in Stanley Kramer’s 1954 production of the Caine Mutiny comes to mind.

We’ll believe it when we see it: Mubarak in the dock with his co-defendants.

Like Mubarak, Queeg isn’t the central figure standing in the dock. Queeg is cross-examined to determine the culpability of two subordinates. Paradoxically they aren’t charged with mutiny. Leveled against them is the military’s catch all, the so-called Devil’s Article: conduct prejudicing order and discipline.

News agencies report the former interior minister, Habib El-Adly, six of his aides, Mubarak and his sons Gamal and Allaa facing multiple charges of stealing government funds and conspiring to kill more than 850 protesters during the Revolution.

The optimum words are conspiring to kill. For an accused to be found guilty of conspiracy the prosecution must prove the accused agreed with others’ intentions amounting to the commission of an offense. It’s a high bar to surmount.

In the case against Mubarak et al the charge of stealing government funds carries a prison sentence, which could be shortened substantially if the missing money turns up or its equivalence is turned over by a third party.

Conspiracy to kill does not necessarily carry a death sentence. You and I could mull over the prospect of duffing up someone we don’t like. But we’d hardly expect to be hanged for just talking.

The prosecutor’s problem is always to find someone who overheard the conspiracy and to establish their veracity as a witness rather than someone trying to save their neck.

That’s where Commander Queeg’s cross-examination was exquisite. A navy psychiatrist testified that Queeg was not mentally ill, the conspirators’ justification for mutiny.

However Queeg snaps under cross-examination. His paranoia revolves around a witch-hunt to identify the galley boys who snitched a punnet of strawberries.

Queeg’s eyes become enflamed. His right hand grinds two ball bearings until the clicking of balls mesmerizes the courtroom. His testimony is blatantly paranoid. The subordinates walk free.

Western jurists ponder the Latin phrase, actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea (the act does not make a person guilty unless the mind is also guilty). The concurrence of a guilty action with a guilty mind is required for conviction.

The last public display of Mubarak’s mindset was his national address on TV before Midnight on February 10, his final full day in power.

Contrition: Those who have committed crimes against our youth will be put on trial according to the courts and the laws. They will get severe punishments.

Then he blows it.

Obfuscation: I would like to tell you that my response to your voice, to your message, to your demands, is an irrevocable commitment and I am determined strongly to pledge what I have promised you with all seriousness and frankness. And I am committed strongly to implement without hesitation all of that without hesitation.

All of what? The prosecutor could interpret those words to mean a commitment to continue repression and use of force. Mubarak reveals no intention to yield to peaceful means. His words are duplicitous and ambiguous.

The millions watching on TV saw through it. Mubarak was trying to shift the blame on to others: Those who have committed crimes against our youth will be put on trial according to the courts and the laws.

That satisfies the second measure of conspiracy: a guilty mind. The first measure, a guilty act, is repeated as the terror continues. Snipers pick off protesters. Criminals released from jail to foment chaos continue to terrorize communities undeterred by police or military.

Mubarak’s rambling then clarifies his mindset: I express a commitment to carry on. It was the serial killer’s deranged plea for time to finish the job. It mirrors the Oslo killer Anders Breivik.

It also foreshadows cowardice to face his accusers. He tries an orator’s trick: The situation is not about Hosni Mubarak but the reality is now about Egypt, its present, the future of its sons…

Deflection, diversion of the attackers: a military mind addressing the imminence of the collapse of his citadel, Hitler in the Führerbunker. He flunked. His mind was as confused as any. TV experts say the pre-recorded broadcast was cut and edited.

This, then, offers his fellow accused an escape. Their defense might be that they were following the orders of a deranged mad man, obsessed, as Queeg was, with triviality compared to the enormity of the crimes being committed.

A long section in Mubarak’s last speech deals with reforming articles of the constitution: 88, 89, 93, 168 and 178.

The irony of Mubarak’s last public words to the nation was: Egypt will prevail above anybody and everybody. Prophetic?

The most notorious conspiracy trial was of eight men accused of conspiring with John Wilkes Booth to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. As in Egypt today, debate raged over the decision to arraign them before a military commission, which won out.

Interesting is the frailty of the evidence against the plotters that led to their sentence to be hanged. Henry Finegas testified as to overhearing a conversation, made in a low tone of voice between George Sanders and William Cleary.

Sanders: If the boys only have luck, Lincoln won’t trouble us much longer.

Cleary:  Is everything going well?

Sanders: Oh, yes.  Booth is bossing the job.

John Surratt Jr., the son of the Canada tavern owner where the assassination plot was hatched, was the last Lincoln conspirer to be captured — in Egypt on November 23 1866 while in quarantine after arriving in Alexandria.

Put before a civilian court, which delivered an 8/4-split verdict, Surratt walked free. Three years later the four convicted conspirators were granted a presidential pardon. Like Surratt, the Mubarak conspirators may make their fortunes on the lecture circuits.

Bogey finished his 30-year Hollywood career quixotically following up the Caine Mutiny staring in The Harder They Fall.

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo-based commentator.

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