When Hosni Mubarak was whisked out of prison by helicopter on Thursday, he did not become a free man. The former Egyptian leader, 85, was taken to a military hospital in Cairo, where’s he under house arrest and still faces criminal charges.
But to many, the move was highly symbolic, the latest sign that the 2011 revolution is being rolled back and that the country’s future is growing messier and more complicated by the day.
Mubarak’s fate remains politically sensitive, potentially explosive and may not be resolved for months or even years. The case also raises a difficult and recurring question: what’s the best way to deal with current and former dictators?
The Arab uprisings offers examples that run the gamut.
The Quick Getaway
In Tunisia’s revolution in January 2011, the first major upheaval of the Arab Spring, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali made a quick getaway to Saudi Arabia on a plane that was reportedly loaded with gold bars.
He was convicted of embezzlement in absentia, but now spends his days quietly in Saudi Arabia. Many critics say Ben Ali and his associates got off far too easy and that justice has not been served.
But there’s the counter-argument that his swift departure marked a conclusive end to his regime and helped clear the way for the country to remake itself.
In this line of reasoning, a dictator should be encouraged to go into exile whenever possible. He may not have to account for his sins, but his departure will allow the country to look forward, rather than backward.
Tunisia is still struggling amid political quarreling and periodic political killings. But there’s no prospect of Ben Ali’s return, and Tunisia has fared better than other Arab states that have gone through upheavals in the past two years.
Dictators Who Stayed And Fought
At the other extreme are dictators who dug in their heels.
In Libya, Moammar Gadhafi unleashed his army in the face of an uprising and immediately plunged the country into civil war. Even after he was driven from the capital, Tripoli, in August 2011, Gadhafi remained in Libya and sought to rally his supporters. He was captured and killed two months later.
Gadhafi may be gone, but many armed groups that emerged during the civil war are still roaming the streets and contributing to the country’s instability.
Conditions are far more dire in Syria, where President Bashar Assad remains in power despite two years of civil war and some 100,000 dead.
Assad’s regime faces a new round of international outrage following accusations that his forces carried out a chemical weapons attack near the capital Damascus on Wednesday, inflicting mass casualties.
The government, which denies using chemical weapons, has been ostracized by the West and much of the international community, but Assad does not appear to be in imminent danger of ouster.
Mubarak Steps Down, But Stays In Egypt
In Mubarak’s case, he relinquished power in February 2011 after 18 days of protests that included violent clashes leaving hundreds dead.
However, when he stepped down, he didn’t leave Egypt, opting for the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik. This led the country to confront Mubarak’s legacy in the courts, and he’s still facing multiple charges, from corruption to complicity in the 2011 killings of demonstrators.
While he’s now been cleared in one case, he could be back in court as soon as Sunday, according to reports from Cairo.
So what would be better for Egypt right now: lengthy court cases that scrutinize Mubarak’s most controversial actions, or a quiet exile in a far away land?
And then there’s Assad. Would his departure into a safe exile be acceptable if it helped bring an end to the country’s savage bloodletting?
Let us know what you think.