There are shelves of books on "transitional justice." But rather than reading them, Egyptians seem to be turning to their own history and politics for instruction. Thus, the trial of Hosni Mubarak, if it occurs, is unlikely to be a textbook case of how to handle former leaders accused of misdeeds. Most international experts on the subject would likely find the Egyptian process too backward-looking, opaque, improvised and overly focused on punishment rather than truth.

But that may be beside the point. To understand the issues in the abstract, isolated from the society and the political system in which they arose, may be unfair and unrealistic. Seen in an Egyptian context, the insistence on trying Mubarak in Egyptian courts has an unavoidable political logic.

First, the revolution itself succeeded precisely because Egyptians with a wide variety of political inclinations and beliefs were able to coalesce around a single demand: Mubarak must go. Having personalized the agenda in January they can hardly turn their backs on the identification of Mubarak as a villain now.

Second, the revolution was not simply motivated by a desire for freedom but also a feeling that many leaders were fleecing the country. In Egypt, leniency is taken to mean refusing to recover ill-gotten gains. While many Egyptians have wildly overestimated the sums involved, they are not likely to be satisfied with half-measures.

Third, the arrest and prosecution of Mubarak and several members of his family has become something of a proxy for a struggle between the revolutionary coalition and the military junta. While relations between army generals and street leaders are still correct — and both sides anxious to avoid a full confrontation — nerves are fraying. The revolutionaries are still uncertain that their movement has triumphed and they remain very suspicious of any attempts to postpone their demands. They can still rally supporters around the issue of serving justice to old regime figures and have thus used it to goad a dawdling military leadership into action.
There is a final aspect of the Mubarak prosecution that has, so far, escaped much notice: It has been handled by the regular judiciary. There is no special tribunal, no public inquiry, and no new law. Egyptians have seen such devices used in their country — and very heavily abused — after previous changes of rulers and regimes. To prosecute Mubarak in a normal criminal court will be a challenge for Egypt’s legal system, but Egyptians are tired of attempts to make end runs around justice.