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Five Lessons from the Mubarak Trial

The Mubarak trial might be symbolic, but what a symbol!

The sight of former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, his sons, and other members of their regime in white prison fatigues, behind bars, in a cage in Cairo is the most significant event in the Arab Spring since the president’s ouster six months ago. It’s a much-needed boon for the reeling youth movements across the region, and a chilling reminder to other strongmen across the Muslim world (including Iran) that history is being transformed before their eyes.

The trial couldn’t come at a more opportune time. Egyptians have grown increasingly agitated with the pace of reform; President Assad in Syria is stepping up his slaughter of protestors; Libya is increasingly uncertain.

So what is the significance of the Mubarak trial? Here are five lessons:

1. Visuals Matter. Until Mubarak was actually rolled into court this morning on a gurney, his voice weak, his hair still dyed, (once even picking his nose), most people in Egypt doubted he would even show up. Twitter breathlessly documented every passage of his journey from a Sinai hospital to the cage in Cairo. Even his sons stood directly between him and the television cameras like henchmen protecting a Hollywood starlet from paparazzi. 

The reason: Pictures matter. And this picture sends a very clear message that nobody is above humiliation.

2. The Arab Spring is Still Alive. Conventional wisdom in Egypt lately has been that the youth protestors of Generation Freedom have been marginalized., and the real battle for power is between the military and Islamic groups. But the fact that this trial is being held at all – and televised – is testament to the continuing influence of youth protestors, who held several rallies this summer to demand accountability for the over 800 people during the revolution. The youth movement may be lacking in organized political clout, but it can still drive events.

3. Revolutions Matter. The real significance of the Arab Spring lies in the coming of age of a new generation of Muslim youth, who represent 60 percent of the Arab world and a total of 1 billion people across the globe. One in seven human beings alive today is a Muslim under 30. For the last three decades, years, the only narrative of change these better-educated, economically pinched young people have been offered is that of the extremists. The uprisings in up to 20 Muslim countries have given them a new narrative, and they’ve shown this generation will no longer passively accept the backward status their parents did. While political progress has inevitably been slow, the trial of Mubarak is a potent reminder that revolutions do have consequences.

3. Bin Ladenism Is Fading. With the tenth anniversary of 9/11 now just days away, and with the death of Osama bin Laden still fresh in everyone’s mind, the trial is another benchmark is the fading appeal of Islamic jihadism. What did Al Qaeda want, after all, than the toppling of Middle East dictators. They couldn’t pull it off, but the protestors did. In every Muslim country where polling is available, Al Qaeda has been losing support precipitously in recent years. Even before his death, confidence in Usama bin Laden fell 42 percentage points in Jordan between 2003 and 2010, 34 points in Indonesia, and 28 points in Pakistan. In Turkey his approval rating went from 15 to 3; in Lebanon from 19 to zero. Hitler would poll higher. And now bin Laden is at the bottom of the sea. Extremists still threaten the West, but for the first time years they are on the defensive.

4. Religion Still Matters. The headlines on Wednesday morning in Egypt read, “The pharaoh in the cage of the accused.” Ramadan started this week, meaning even most moderate Muslims will gather with their family, fast during the day, and feast at night. The sacred is in the air. The symbolic significance of the former ruling family, widely pilloried as having “pharaonic powers,” stripped of their hand-made suits and pricey jewelry, dressed in the same humble white clothing pilgrims wear to Mecca, will be lost on no one in the Muslim world. 

As Moses says to Pharaoh in the Koran, “You are not a god.” This week, more than ever, that lesson echoes in the Arab world.

Bruce Feiler is the bestselling author of "Walking the Bible" and "Abraham." His latest book, "Generation Freedom: The Middle East Uprisings and the Remaking of the Modern World," has just been published. Follow him on Twitter @brucefeiler