(MENAFN - Arab News) THESE are the best of times and the worst of times, as Dickens would put it, in the Middle East. Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was lord of all he surveyed until last year.
As America's closest ally and friend after Israel and protector of US geopolitical interests, his power flowed far beyond the borders of Egypt. So it's sobering to see the last pharaoh of Egypt behind the bars today.
Who could have imagined last year Mubarak wouldn't just be stripped of power and tried for his crimes but would actually be made to pay for them? But then we have seen so much over the past year and half that would have been unimaginable months ago. We have already seen four powerful potentates bite the dust with more on the way.
Mubarak is the first leader in Egypt's and region's history to be held to account. This is why this verdict awarding the deposed president a life behind the bars is truly historic and profound and could have a watershed effect on the Middle East and beyond.
The life sentence for the 84-year-old Mubarak and his Interior Minister Habib Al-Adli, however, has failed to mollify the families of 850 young men and women taken down by the security forces for daring to defy the regime. Angry protesters have refused to leave the Tahrir Square since as they demand "death for the dictator." They chanted "farce, farce!" as special judge Ahmed Rifaat pronounced Mubarak and his lieutenant "guilty" but stopped short of a death sentence.
The protesters are also upset by the fact that while Mubarak and his minister have received life sentence for the killings, senior security officials who executed their orders have been let off. Doubtless, a clever attempt by the military establishment led by Gen. Hussain Tantawi to pass on the buck to the deposed ruler and his Cabinet while protecting their own.
Let's not forget though that Mubarak himself was part of the powerful military establishment, just as two of his predecessors Anwar Sadat and Gamal Nasser had been. Mubarak was the air chief marshal when he stepped into Sadat's shoes after his assassination at a military parade. The military has ruled and controlled all walks of life with an iron fist since the 1952 coup. The aura of invincibility and power that surrounded Mubarak all these years was the military's gift. Power flowed from the barrel of the gun, as Mao would put it, in Egypt. It still does.
Which is why this verdict, however imperfect, against the once most powerful men in the land is groundbreaking in so many ways. It's a rare moment of triumph not just against a corrupt regime and a lifetime of abuse of power but also heralds the crumbling of a decaying order across the region. If there were any doubts about its unraveling, demonstrated last year at that old square in downtown Cairo, they should be cleared by this conviction.
This isn't merely a verdict on the killing of hundreds of peaceful demonstrators but a protest against "a nightmare that did not last for a night but for almost 30 black, black, black years," as judge Ahmed Rifaat interestingly put it.
Indeed, the nightmare went way beyond Mubarak's 30-year rule.
There are lessons in this for all tyrants, especially the smiling monster in Damascus. Drunk with power and with all those killing machines at their disposal, they might think they can get away with murder. All crimes are however accounted for - sooner or later. And their hour of reckoning has arrived.
Thanks to decades of corruption and abuse of power, the Middle East's most populous nation with a 5,000-year-old civilization has been reduced to a caricature of its once glorious self. Once the proud leader of Arab world in arts, culture, literature and politics, Egypt is falling apart today. Corruption is a way of life.
People are desperately poor despite their fabulous natural resources and infrastructure. And more than the abuse of natural and financial resources, it's the indignities Egyptians have suffered as a nation under successive totalitarian regimes that have been far more damaging.
The Egyptian police state with its numerous security and intelligence agencies constantly terrorizing and breathing down the citizen's neck has been the model and prototype that has spawned similar systems across the Arab world. Inheriting power from colonial masters, the so-called Arab revolutionaries, from Tunisia to Algeria to Syria, forced the systems and policies meant for the colonized on their free people.
Who can ever forget the long night of terror that blanketed the Muslim Brotherhood under the successive regimes for their audacity to dream of a better world inspired by the original ideals of Islam? However, the more the regime tried to suppress and annihilate the Arab world's most popular, grassroots movement, the more it flourished, inspiring fellow travelers across the region and around the world.
So it is only fitting that as a sulking Mubarak cools his heels behind the bars, a Brotherhood candidate is getting ready to take reins of the republic. The movement already commands majority in parliament following the first free polls held in the nation's history after Mubarak's departure.
While a worried West and its allies get all worked up over the terrifying implications of Mohamed Mursi ending up in the presidency, most Egyptians are looking forward to turning a new page.
If anyone thinks they could prevent this dawn of democracy and hope in Egypt and the Middle East, they had better think again. The burning down of the campaign headquarters of Ahmed Shafiq, the other presidential candidate and prime minister under Mubarak, is a warning that Egyptians yearn for real change and are determined to achieve it.
A genuine change in Egypt could indeed change the vast, critical region stretching from Arab Maghreb to Pakistan and Afghanistan. It could dramatically alter the status quo and contours of the Arab-Israeli conflict as well, which has played a key role in aggravating Islam-West relations. The Palestinian condition under Israeli occupation dramatically worsened after the Egypt-Israel accord. A more reasonable leadership in Cairo could hopefully introduce a semblance of balance in this equation. So the future is full of infinite possibilities provided a real change is allowed in Cairo.
The world is watching Egypt with trepidation. There are fears that an Islamist government in the land 'where it all began,' as the Egyptians claim, would mean the end of the world, especially for minorities. These apprehensions need to be addressed.
For the first time, the Islamists have got a real shot at power. At a time when Islam is viewed with so much distrust thanks to a lunatic fringe and concerted campaigns by its enemies, they have a historic opportunity to demonstrate its liberating, universal message in action. They mustn't blow it.
Egypt holds the key to awakening and change across the Arab-Islamic world and demolishing the bunkum that faith and democracy cannot coexist.
n Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Gulf based commentator.