CAIRO - Facing tenacious uprisings, the leaders of Syria, Libya and Yemen must have thought of their own possible fates when they saw their one-time peer Hosni Mubarak in a defendants cage, on trial for charges that could carry a death sentence.
For the three authoritarian Arab leaders, the choices are limited: Cling to power at any cost, negotiate immunity or find a foreign haven.
All those options make it harder to resolve their countries’ turmoil peacefully.
Syria’s Bashar Assad, Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh are likely to step up violence, judging that they must wipe out the uprisings against them to ensure their own protection. If negotiations do occur, then they are even more certain than before to demand that any deal include immunity or safe exile. And their opponents, more determined than ever to see their leaders in the same dock as Mubarak, may be less likely to accept those conditions.
“That’s the lesson Arab leaders have learned: Mubarak gave up too easily (and) without a fight,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. “They think Mubarak was soft.”
Mubarak stepped down Feb. 11 after an 18-day uprising that left 850 protesters dead. Assad, Gadhafi and Saleh show no sign of giving up power even after several months of bloody internal strife.
As Mubarak’s trial opened earlier this month Syrian forces stepped up an already ferocious assault to crush protesters in the city of Hama in a campaign that has killed at least 100 people.
The governments of other Arab nations were clearly unsettled by the message sent by Mubarak’s trial that long-unquestioned leaders can be punished.
Many state television stations around the region, particularly the kingdoms of the Gulf, did not have live broadcasts of the historic, four-hour opening session of the Mubarak trial. Syrian state TV showed children’s shows. Channels in the United Arab Emirates stuck to typical programming of the holy month of Ramadan -- old movies and soap operas.
Still, on pan-Arab satellite stations like Al-Jazeera, their citizens could follow every moment of the trial and the images of the ailing, 83-year-old Mubarak in his hospital bed in the courtroom cage.
“Throughout the Arab world, we will see citizens relieved to see a fair trial of a former president who was a tyrant and an oppressor,” wrote Egyptian analyst and political activist Amr Hamzawi in Cairo’s Al-Shorouk daily. “Others will find inspiration in the Egyptian revolution to continue their own in the hope of freedom, democracy and social justice.”
Mubarak, accused of corruption and of ordering the killings of protesters, is the first leader to be tried by his own people in the modern Arab world. That feat eclipses the trial of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein because the process that led to Saddam’s conviction and execution was supervised by the United States.
The protesters in the heat of the Mideast’s uprisings looked at Mubarak and saw their own leaders.
“Bashar Assad has done much worse than Mubarak, so our job is more difficult and needs more time, but one day he will sit in a cage too and pay the price of his crimes,” said a protester from the Syrian city of Homs, who refused to be identified for fear of reprisals.
Even before the trial in Egypt, Assad showed no sign of backing down in his brutal crackdown against protesters. In fact, the repression has only gotten more vicious. Some 1,700 civilians have been killed since the uprising began nearly five months ago.
Assad has made gestures of reform, dismissed by activists as too little too late. In power since he succeeded his father in 2000, Assad appears to have determined that his only choice is to step up force until the protesters are intimidated or silenced. So far, however, those calling for his downfall have returned relentlessly to the streets no matter how many of their numbers are gunned down each day.
In Egypt, Mubarak’s fall has led to prosecutions of some in his inner circle, but not to a wider purge, largely because Mubarak’s military has led the transition, for better or worse.
A post-Assad Syria is not likely to be so serene. Not only would Assad likely be prosecuted, but also members of his extended family and associates who have directed a corrupt monopoly of politics and business during the 40-year Assad dynasty.
Beyond his inner circle, the Alawite religious minority to which the Assads belong would also lose its prestige _ and likely would face retaliation from the Sunni Muslim majority. A similar fate awaits the tens of thousands of hardcore Baath supporters who have over the years milked party links for profit.
In Libya, a spokesman for the rebels’ National Transitional Council vowed that “Gadhafi will meet the same fate as Mubarak.”
“He should learn the moral of what happened to Mubarak,” said the spokesman, Shamseldeen Abdul-Mawlah.
Libya’s leader for more than four decades, Gadhafi has refused to budge in the face of a six-month-old revolt, the loss of nearly the entire eastern half of his oil-rich nation to rebels, an arrest warrant against him by the International Criminal Court and NATO airstrikes. Rebels have been unable to move militarily on his Tripoli stronghold, giving him little motivation to give up -- and he can hope that the rebels themselves crumble over time.
Yemen provides the most nuanced situation, after six months of massive protests.
President Saleh would in theory seem the most receptive to the “lesson of Mubarak” and be the closest to snapping up the chance for a safe exit. He is already effectively in exile, recuperating in Saudi Arabia from wounds suffered in a bombing at his compound in the capital. International mediators have even hammered out a deal providing him immunity in return for stepping down.
But the mercurial Saleh has proven almost mind-bogglingly stubborn, perhaps a sign of how inconceivable it is for any leader to go willingly. With his cronies still in power in Sanaa, Yemen's capital, he has refused to resign or to sign the international deal and insists he will return home to rule.
And his opponents are now even more determined.
“What happened in Egypt is filling us with motivation to do more,” said Ahmed Nayef, one of the protests’ leaders.
Hendawi is the AP's Egypt chief of bureau. AP reporters Adam Schreck in Dubai, Ahmed al-Haj in Sanaa and Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.