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The Departing Dictators' Dilemma: Retirement or Prison?

On New Year's Day, Hosni Mubarak was the president of Egypt. Now, he is a "guest of the state" in a military hospital, and his sons are in jail.

Mubarak's fate complicates efforts to encourage other authoritarian leaders to step down and peacefully relinquish power. One of the sticking points in crafting a settlement for Yemen's president Ali Abdullah Saleh to resign is Saleh's insistence on unbreakable guarantees of immunity from prosecution. Having learned from Mubarak's example, Saleh will wait until an amnesty is written into law before resigning.

Is there a way forward? This week, at World Politics Review, I offer another model from recent history where regime change led to debates about how to balance accountability for the old regime with the need to promote stability: South Africa.

Perhaps an even more relevant example to the Egyptian case was the fate of South Africa's P.W. Botha, a former prime minister who was president during the apartheid system's "last gasp." Botha could easily have been tried and convicted for any of the actions undertaken by the country's security forces during the 1970s and 1980s. Instead, the former leader, who resigned in 1989, was permitted to retire to his country home. Significantly, Botha's only tangle with the post-apartheid legal system was the imposition of a fine and a suspended jail sentence, in 1998, for refusing to testify before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about his activities when in power.

Some might argue that this approach would allow Mubarak to get off scot-free. But requiring the former president to cooperate with some sort of truth commission as well as levying fines for ill-gotten gains accumulated during his time in office might serve to create the balance between justice and mercy that [Gerald] Ford referred to in justifying his own decision to pardon [Richard] Nixon. Otherwise, Mubarak's fate could become just one more chapter in the long saga of Middle Eastern leaders who rise and fall because of the whims of fortune.

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