This essay is part of the Middle East-Asia Project (MAP) series on “Pathways to Transitional Justice in the Arab World — Reflections on the Asia Pacific Experience.” The series explores the pursuit of transitional justice in the post-Arab Spring Middle East, and how such efforts could be informed by past and ongoing justice processes in Asia-Pacific countries. See Resources …


This article is based on research conducted while Dr. Barsalou was a visiting scholar at the American University in Cairo. The views expressed are her own and not necessarily those of the El-Hibri Foundation.


Egyptians who believed that the removal of President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 would lead to the establishment of a democratic government have faced many setbacks. Youthful revolutionary activists unsuccessfully challenged the power of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) transitional government and the autonomy of the military. The electoral triumph of Islamist parties and candidates in parliamentary and presidential elections in 2011 and 2012 eclipsed weak and inexperienced secular parties and brought to power leaders who failed to ensure adequate representation of political opponents, women, and Copts in key aspects of governing, or to protect Copts from rising attacks. Continuing divisions among opposition forces, along with the roundup of Islamists and other opponents by the military, which engineered the July 2013 removal of President Mohamed Morsi, suggest that the struggle to achieve justice and create an accountable government will be prolonged.[1]

Although Egypt is not yet a democratic state, the ground has nonetheless shifted fundamentally. Egyptians not only expect their government to perform better in delivering basic services; millions who joined strikes, marches, and demonstrations over the past several years have voiced their aspiration to live in a democratic society governed by the rule of law.

An exploratory survey, based on responses from 169 Egyptians during the SCAF transitional government and enriched by in-depth interviews with more than 50 respondents, probed Egyptian values and expectations relating to justice and accountability in post-Mubarak Egypt.[2] Since selection was not random, representative, or sufficiently large, we cannot, formally speaking, project conclusions from the sample as representing the views of the population at large.[3] The situation in Egypt is also extremely dynamic, and attitudes represented in this research represent a snapshot of views at a particular phase in Egypt’s recent turbulent past. Despite these caveats, the study provides insights into views likely to be held by many Egyptians at that time and yields preliminary conclusions useful for testing through further research.

Main Findings

I. Due Process and the Rule of Law

We asked a series of questions designed to reveal Egyptian values with respect to due process and the rule of law.

Survey Results

The findings reveal that the respondents supported due process and the rule of law as general principles. More precisely, respondents agreed with the statement that alleged wrongdoers have the right to defend themselves through trials. Respondents even more strongly endorsed the principle that all wrongdoers should be held accountable—not just those who craft wrongful policies but also those who carry out their orders. Consistent with these views, respondents generally did not support protection from prosecution in exchange for testimony, although there was relatively high disagreement among respondents on that question. Chart 1 displays the mean scores for the whole sample.

The views held by respondents on these issues did not differ with respect to their gender, age, place of residence, or religion. Working class respondents, however, were much less supportive than middle class respondents of the right of alleged wrongdoers to defend themselves through trials and were more likely to think that people who broke the law should be held accountable. These differences are statistically significant at p<0.0001.[4]

Those who believe that the Egyptian public will endorse international justice processes should note that the survey did not reveal enthusiasm for this, although it also made clear that Egyptians were substantially unfamiliar with how other countries have handled questions of accountability and justice following political transitions. Further research is needed to determine why working class respondents were more supportive of “outside” justice than middle class respondents (although this difference was not statistically significant). At the same time, the study addresses key debates in transitional justice by indicating Egyptians’ strong preference for local versus international justice and for institutional reforms over trials and truth telling.[5]

Illustrative Interview Comments

Survey findings give the strong impression that Egyptians are unbendable on the question of holding all wrongdoers accountable. But interview comments reflect awareness that millions were swept up in corruption, making justice for all unfeasible and possibly undesirable, especially when job survival translated into complicity with illegal behavior.  

Egypt is not a signatory of the 1998 Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court (ICC), despite the stated intention of Nabil al-Araby during his brief stint as foreign minister in the SCAF transitional government. Many respondents were skeptical of the legitimacy of seeking justice outside Egypt if it is not accessible locally. Indeed, some interviewees used strong language to denounce any who might embrace this course of action. One university student said it would be an “act of treason,” and another suggested it would “undermine the authority of the Egyptian state.” The latter continued, "We have to rely on Egyptian resources to promote justice and accountability. Look at Libya—they wouldn’t allow Seif al-Islam [Muammar Qaddafi’s son] to be sent to the ICC outside Libya. We don’t have a shortage of judges or courts. The problem is who is running the show." His friend added, “We need to handle justice on our own terms and not rely on outside institutions.”

Family members of victims may have different views about seeking international justice. One interviewee noted that the mother of Khaled Said (who was beaten to death by Alexandria police seven months before the January 25 revolution began) threatened to approach the ICC if his murderers were not held accountable by Egyptian authorities. A leading activist also launched a campaign to give the ICC jurisdiction over crimes committed in Egypt.[6] But these views have not caught on widely.

II. The Public Value of Trials

SCAF organized a number of trials of alleged wrongdoers, principally high officials and big businessmen close to the Mubarak family. While these trials did not address the longer legacy of abuse of power during Mubarak’s 30-year reign and largely ignored torture and violence against demonstrators committed by lower-level officials, the public was keenly interested in them, as demonstrated by the survey findings and interviews.[7]

The group in the population with most faith in the value of the trials was comprised of older, working class men.

Later developments suggest the need for further research about the perceived value of trials. Most of the trials of regime figures stretched out over many months in civilian courts. Moreover, many of the security officials and police put on trial were found “not guilty.” Meanwhile, expedited trials of some 12,000 civilians, mostly youthful opponents of SCAF, were conducted in special military courts without due process, often resulting in long sentences.

One engineer said, “It doesn’t make sense that Hosni [Mubarak] and other [regime figures] are being tried in civilian courts while demonstrators are tried in military courts.” Nonetheless, many were amazed that the trial of Mubarak and his sons even took place. Commenting about its novelty, a human rights activist said, “We will never forget seeing Mubarak in court on the first day of the trial when he first responded to the question of whether he was present: ‘Afandim, ana mawgud’” (Sir, I’m here).

Survey Results

Chart 2 shows respondents’ rank ordering of possible activities that Egypt could implement to put it on the “right path.” Respondents’ priorities are striking: first and foremost, they endorsed security sector (police, intelligence, and military) reform, followed by greater judicial independence and constitutional reform. High support for strengthening judicial independence echoes a similar finding from a recent Pew Research Center poll, in which Egyptians ranked a “fair judiciary” as their second highest priority, after “improved economic conditions.”[8]

The fact that respondents ranked security sector reform as their top transitional justice intervention dovetails with their ranking of human rights trials as first out of five possible trial options (see Chart 3). These findings clearly reflect the pervasiveness of abuses by security sector organizations during the Mubarak regime and the SCAF transitional government. It is no accident that the first day of the January 25 revolution was a national holiday honoring the police. An unexpected finding was the relatively low priority given to the needs of victims/survivors. Two choices offered in the questionnaire addressed victims’ needs: apologies to and compensation for victims (ranked ninth out of 11 options) and memorials and museums to honor victims and remember the past (ranked last). This finding was reinforced by how respondents ranked trials seeking reparations for victims/survivors as the lowest of five possible options (Chart 3). Does this mean that Egyptians do not care about justice for victims? Certainly it does not, as many other initiatives have highlighted the needs and demands of victims and survivors.[9] Another way to explain why victims’ needs took lower priority in the questionnaire is that the January 25 revolution was much less violent than similar struggles preceding transitions to democracy.

The survey also confirmed that Egyptians believe that justice has important social and economic components, and is not just based on access to political and civil rights. Views about the importance of social justice were widely held without significant variation in relation to respondents’ age, gender, class, or religion.

Emerging Profiles of Egyptian Views Along Demographic Lines

The research suggests that there are clear differences in how Egyptians think about some aspects of justice and accountability based on their age, gender, class status, level of education, place of residence, and religion. Differences that emerged most strongly are outlined below.

Age: Younger people (aged 39 and younger) were significantly more skeptical about the value of the trials than those aged 50 and above. Roughly the same goes for perceptions about how the transition is going and optimism about the future, although in this respect it was those aged 49 and younger who were much more pessimistic.

Gender: Like younger respondents, women were significantly more skeptical than men, both about the value of the trials and the future. Perhaps they did not see much value in the trials because they did not address significant issues affecting women’s status. Arguably, women are among those most likely to benefit from real reforms in Egypt, though these reforms are still unrealized.

Class Status: An important finding from the study is that working class respondents were significantly less supportive than middle class respondents of the right of alleged wrongdoers to defend themselves through trials, although they were similar in their views about the importance of holding wrongdoers accountable. Are working class Egyptians quicker to assume guilt of wrongdoers than middle class Egyptians? Our findings suggest that they are, but this deserves further research.

Another issue requiring further study is why working class respondents, more than those from the middle class, were supportive of Egyptians’ right to seek justice outside Egypt if it is not available locally. This may represent lower confidence in the policing and judicial systems among the working class, which arguably bears the brunt of police abuse and the miscarriage of justice. But if that is the case, why did working class respondents see significantly more value in the trials of regime figures than middle class respondents? Interviews suggest it is because many never expected to see Hosni Mubarak and other major figures in the dock. Even if this and other trials were flawed, to many working class Egyptians they represented previously inconceivable progress.

Final Reflections

The study provides the basis both for hope and concern about Egypt’s future. On the positive side, it is clear that many Egyptians strongly believe in the rule of law, due process, and social justice—all values at the heart of establishing a more transparent, accountable, and democratic government. They will not be satisfied by halfhearted measures designed to scapegoat only top officials, and they have high standards and expectations when it comes to building a political order based on justice and accountability. Although Morsi talked about establishing alternative “revolutionary courts” for reliably delivering guilty verdicts, the study suggests that some Egyptians will remain skeptical about trials if they are not based on due process and convincing forensic investigations. The latter will be infeasible, however, without substantial reform of, and cooperation from, the Ministry of Interior.

Egyptians’ general unfamiliarity with international justice institutions and practices, coupled with strong nationalism, should caution those inclined to favor international over local justice interventions. Strategies based on Egyptian justice traditions and institutions appear more likely to win public support.

Moreover, international practitioners should note that many Egyptians clearly believe that fundamental institutional reforms should take priority over criminal prosecutions and truth telling. While international advice about how to craft such reforms might improve outcomes, clearly the impetus must lie with Egyptian, not international, actors.

Finally, the danger of raised public expectations in the context of Egypt’s deepening economic crisis should not be underestimated. Persistent impunity, the government’s failure to undertake meaningful reforms, reports of vigilantism and mob “justice,” and continued domination of Egypt’s political system by unaccountable military and security institutions are worrying portents of future instability. Without needed reforms and the consistent application of the rule of law based on due process, Egypt’s transition to democracy remains insecure and incomplete.

Appendix: Tables and Charts

Table1: Sample Characteristics


Chart 1: Attitudes About the Rule of Law

Chart 2: Relative Importance of Ways to Put Egypt on the Right Path

Chart 3: Relative Importance of Different Kinds of Trials


[1] SCAF’s steps toward justice and accountability were limited and unconvincing. See Judy Barsalou, “Transitional Justice in Egypt: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back,” NOREF Policy Brief, June 2012, Also see “Report: 88 Tortured, 34 Killed in Morsy’s First 100 Days,” Al Masry Al Youm, 14 October 2012,

[2] Survey responses and most of the interviews were conducted between 21 November 2011 and 9 March 2012, using a snowball sampling technique to build the sample. See Patrick Biernacki and Dan Waldorf, “Snowball Sampling: Problems and Techniques of Chain Referral Sampling,” Sociological Methods and Research 10, 2 (1981): 141-163.

[3] The sample is outlined in Table 1 in the Appendix.

[4] The term “statistically significant” means that the results reported would occur by chance in one in 20 occasions or less frequently. Statistical significance is measured by “probability values” (“p” for short), so that the value in which p is “one in 20” is written as “p = 0.05.” In the case above, where p < 0.0001, the probability is less than one in 10,000 that the result would occur by chance and is therefore highly statistically significant.

[5] For more about international versus local justice, see Aaron P. Boesenecker and Leslie Vinjamuri, “Lost in Translation? Civil Society, Faith-Based Organizations and the Negotiation of International Norms,” International Journal of Transitional Justice 5, 3 (2011): 345-365; Laura Arriaza and Naomi Roht-Arriaza, “Social Reconstruction as a Local Process,” International Journal of Transitional Justice 2, 2 (2008): 157-172; Patricia Lundy and Mark McGovern, “Whose Justice? Rethinking Justice from the Bottom Up,” Journal of Law and Society 35, 2 (2008): 265-292; Kieran McEvoy and Lorna McGregor, Transitional Justice from Below: Grassroots Activism and the Struggle for Change (Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2008); Alexander Betts, “Should Approaches to Post-conflict Justice and Reconciliation Be Determined Globally, Nationally or Locally?” The European Journal of Development Research 17, 4 (2005): 735-752. For discussion about legal accountability versus other interventions and reforms, see Laurel E. Fletcher, Harvey M. Weinstein, and Jamie Rowan, “Context, Timing and Dynamics of Transitional Justice: A Historical Perspective,” Human Rights Quarterly 31, 1 (2009): 163-220.

[6] Rana Muhammad Taha and Connor Molloy, “Revolutionaries Demand Jurisdiction for International Criminal Court,” Daily News Egypt, 30 October 2012,….

[7] For information about an exceptional court case, see “Five Giza Policemen Sentenced to 10 Years in Prison for Killing Protestors,” Egypt Independent, 22 May 2012, Another unusual verdict focused on events preceding the January 25 revolution. See “Court Upholds Prison Verdict for Police Chief in 2003 Torture Incident,”Al Masry Al Youm, 22 May 2012,

[8] Pew Research Center, “One Year Later … Egyptians Remain Optimistic, Embrace Democracy and Religion in Public Life,” Global Attitudes Project, 8 May 2012, 2,

[9] Judy Barsalou, “Post-Mubarak Egypt: History, Collective Memory and Memorialization,” Middle East Policy 19, 2 (2012): 134-147. For a shorter version, see “Recalling the Past: The Battle Over History, Collective Memory and Memorialization,” Jadaliyya, 22 June 2012,….

[10] We constructed this category on the basis of the last degree earned and employment. “Working class” respondents included persons who had not completed a high school degree, as well as those with higher levels of education but performing low-skill and low-income jobs. All others were coded in a single combined group (middle class and upper middle class).

[11] We did not ask people their religion but inferred it from their names. If an inference could not be drawn or the respondent chose anonymity, we coded respondents’ religion as “not applicable.”


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