Robert Fisk: Mubarak will die in jail, but that's no thanks to us

As the former Egyptian dictator is sentenced, our writer remembers the West's determination to overlook his regime's violence

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The dictator was sentenced to death yesterday. Twenty-five years is death, isn't it, if you're 84 years old? Hosni Mubarak will die in jail. And Habib al-Adli, his interior minister, 74 years old, maybe he will be killed in jail if he doesn't live out his life sentence. These were the thoughts of two old Egyptian friends of mine yesterday. And Mubarak was sentenced for the dead of the 2011 revolution. That's 850 dead – 34 people for each year of his term. Quite a thought.

Of course, we were not asking about the death sentences at the military courts in the 1980s and 1990s – and we can't, can we, when the military is still in power in Egypt. Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the field marshal who runs the country, never suggested these courts – and their death sentences – were wrong. Mubarak was fighting "terror", wasn't he? On our behalf, I believe. For he was a "moderate", a friend of the West, and maybe that's why Mubarak's sons, Gamal and Alaa, got off. Will they leave the country? Will they quit Egypt? No doubt.

So that's the story. Let's not mention Bashar al-Assad here. The Egyptian court was meant to be a lesson for him. Kofi Annan was down in Qatar, talking about the Syrian government's sins yesterday. But, then, there are some problems, aren't there? Didn't Mubarak receive a few "renditioned" prisoners from George W Bush; tortured them, too, at Washington's behest? And didn't Damascus also torture a few "renditioned" prisoners – the name Arar comes to mind, a Canadian citizen, sent off from JFK for a touch of torture in the Syrian capital? Yes, our "moderate" Arabs were always ready to help us, weren't they?

So let's recall how US ambassadors in Cairo pleaded with Mubarak, asking him to tell his cops to stop torturing their prisoners. One particular US ambassador told the president that his prisoners were being gang-raped in the Tora jails outside Cairo, given women's names, Muslim "extremists", of course, but wasn't this taking punishment a bit far? Mubarak didn't get judged for that yesterday. Only for deaths in the revolution.

Mubarak's snipers gunned down the young revolutionaries in Tahrir Square at night. That's probably why Judge Ahmed Refaat referred to "30 years of darkness" when he sentenced Mubarak, praising those he called "the sons of the nation who rose up peacefully for freedom and justice". But then there were many who died in Mubarak's police stations and in Islamist uprisings – we could mention the Muslims who died in Sadat's prisons, too – for whose demise the former Egyptian president was not sentenced yesterday. And, in a sense, Mubarak was also being punished for Sadat. For Nasser's police regime, too.

We Brits always loved Egypt. We thieved our way round the land of the pharaohs. We marched south from Cairo to save Gordon of Khartoum. We put our cloak around King Farouk. We encouraged Egyptian democracy in the 1920s (until the democrats wanted to get rid of King Farouk). We admired Egypt's role in the Second World War (helpfully forgetting that Sadat was on Rommel's side) and we originally liked Nasser. And then along came Sadat, who threw out the Russians, made peace with Israel – he did want a Palestinian state, he told the Knesset, though we have forgotten that now – and was murdered by his own army (his murderers "posed" as soldiers, al-Jazeera wrongly told us yesterday).

And out of the dead and wounded of this incredible military parade, there emerged one Hosni Mubarak, dour, dull, boring, his hatred of "Islamism" all too obvious, a man who – in the immortal words of that finest of journalists, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal – "entered a room which was a sea of quietness". And quietness was what he most wanted. Last night, Egyptian state television claimed Mubarak had suffered a heart attack on the helicopter taking him from the court; as a colleague said, a life sentence would make anyone ill.

Amnesty and Human Rights Watch and unnumbered diplomats talked about extrajudicial killings and police murders – in the south of Egypt, especially around Asyut – and about corruption in the halls of power. There were those in Cairo who said that corruption was not the problem; it was the small scale of the corruption, its adherence to the president, its very exclusivity, that created anger. And, oh, how every Egyptian newspaper – in a land that was once famous for its free press – would put Mubarak on page one, every day, every week, every month, every year. For Egyptian journalists, their newspapers were Saddamite in their loyalty. One scribe, angered at my questioning of presidential election results, called me "a crow pecking at the corpse of Egypt".

This was a president, let us remember, who happily allowed his journalists to doctor a White House photograph, placing Mubarak in front of King Abdullah of Jordan; indeed, in pace with the youthful Obama, a man whose barber lovingly coloured his hair (his cabinet colleagues availed of the same barber's devices); and whose speeches were printed ad infinitum in the Cairo press. Thank God, he did not (like Saddam and Gaddafi) write novels.

But let us remember, this happy Jubilee Day, how we loved Mubarak, how we courted him, praised him, listened to his advice, his thoughts on Islamism, his security boss's fears of Islamist violence (a man called Omar Suleiman, I seem to recall, who wanted to be president until his name was chucked out by the parliament), and how we thought him a "peacemaker". And now Egyptians wait to see whether Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's old prime minister, will be the next president, or the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Mursi. After today, my Egyptian friends tell me, Shafiq is out. Well, we shall see. And if Mursi wins, won't he be just as nice to the army as Shafiq?

Too cynical? Revolutions don't always end happily. Think 1789. Think 1917. Think Egypt 1952. I wrote 17 months ago that Egypt's revolution against Mubarak was the happiest story I have ever written. It's still true. Arabs, in their millions, overthrew a dictator. But I fear that, if the dictator has gone, the dictatorship has survived. The army runs Egypt today. And we, in the West, like armies. Washington likes armies.

No one will suggest that Mubarak's future is too harsh. Egyptian television announced yesterday that he would be moved to the hospital of the Tora prison, the jail in which his torturers once did their duties and where several of his former servants are now serving time. He will be visited by his sons. But Gamal and Alaa are still in detention; awaiting charges of stock market manipulation.

This will matter little to the real revolutionaries of Tahrir Square. They wanted a clean country, a clean society, not a run-off between a Muslim Brother and an ex-Mubarak satrap. Tunisia seemed like a good precedent, a corrupt old dictator fleeing to Saudi Arabia. Another corrupt old dictator will die, eventually, in Cairo, I suppose. But Libya wasn't exactly a peaceful revolution. Nor Yemen. Nor Syria...

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