If the Sphinx were to pose a riddle today, it could well be about the future of the Arab world which is still in turmoil after the famed Spring which began in December 2010. The life sentence handed down by a court to former president Hosni Mubarak on charges of complicity in the killing of protesters against his regime is not likely to bring us any closer to solving the riddle. However, it is a landmark verdict in that he is the first Arab leader to be tried in an ordinary court - Tunisia's Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali was tried in absentia and Saddam Hussein by a special tribunal.
Mubarak's fall from Pharaonic heights to being an ordinary criminal sends out a strong message to the other strongman in the region, Syria's Bashar Assad. The western-educated Assad, who was expected to open up the country and usher in democratic reforms, has turned out even more dictatorial than his implacable father Hafiz Assad. Recently, reports have come in that over 100 civilians were massacred by Syrian soldiers and the death toll since the unrest began has crossed 9,000. While things have calmed down in Tunisia and Morocco, where a wise monarch allowed greater freedoms, in Syria, Assad seems to be digging in his heels for a long battle not only with his own people but the international community as well. Those who expected that the trial of Mubarak would lead to a 'road to Damascus' moment for Assad have been sorely disappointed.
The end of the Mubarak era unfortunately does not mean a smooth transition to democracy for Egypt. The old regime is at loggerheads with the resurgent Muslim Brotherhood, which dominates both houses of Parliament. There is still uncertainty and economic hardship but the people seem to be bearing with all this basking in a rare period where they feel they have got back their liberty and dignity. The West, which is hammering home the need for greater democracy, might also want to stand back and introspect on why it propped up dictatorial regimes like the Mubarak one. America, for one, was a staunch ally of Mubarak, who was seen as a friendly face in the Arab world. The money it gave him was used more to suppress his own people than bring in any real reform. The western idea of arming insurgents to overthrow regimes, too, is misplaced, as dangerous elements tend to fill power vacuums. Hopefully, in Egypt, things will stabilise after a new president takes over. And one thing will be uppermost in his mind - unlike the beliefs of the great Pharaohs whose pyramids lie on the edge of Cairo, in politics, there is no afterlife, you have to deliver in the here and now.