Paul Greenberg

At last conflicting reports, Hosni Mubarak was suspended somewhere between life and death, just as the Egyptian dictator's last precarious year has been spent somewhere between justice and only political justice. Egypt itself still hangs somewhere between revolution and whatever comes afterward -- probably more suspense, upheaval and uncertainty. Which will not end with Hosni Mubarak's eventual departure from this vale of tears.

In the meantime, Egypt waits and waits. Much as Spaniards once did as their dictator lingered and lingered. For the longest time, there was no need to change the standing headline out of Spain: "Francisco Franco still dying."

Now it is Egypt's turn to wait. Found guilty by his judges not of any specific crimes on the books but of failing to stop the killing of others as his regime fell, Hosni Mubarak was sentenced to prison for whatever remains of his uncertain life. The verdict was neither pure politics nor pure law, which tends to happen when terrible wrongs are committed but existent law seems incapable of dealing with the sheer extent of them.

See the verdicts handed down at the Nuremberg Trials at the end of the Second World War, which resulted in sentences even unto death for the Nazi defendants. Some called it justice, yet those closely watched, precedent-setting trials also produced the spectacle of Soviet generals sitting in judgment on war crimes -- as representatives of the regime that had committed the Katyn Forest massacre and who knows how many others.

It seems Comrade Stalin did not want a Polish elite to get in the way of his rule over Poland after the war, so he simply had Poland's officers corps wiped out and blamed it on the Nazis, who were fully capable of such a deed. And for years, till the truth could no longer be denied, the usual dupes swallowed that Communist line.

So, too, do good and evil mix in the judgments handed down in Hosni Mubarak's convoluted case. What do you do with a disgraced leader who has been both patriot and tyrant, as difficult as it is for Americans to get our minds around such a concept, patriotism and freedom being so inextricably mixed here.

Yet it is a familiar phenomenon in European history. The Europeans of the early 19th century handled such matters more deftly. Napoleon Bonaparte, liberator and dictator, was not executed but confined to an island -- first Elba and, when he refused to stay put, to more remote St. Helena to die in welcome obscurity after his wars and depredations. So the continent's history could continue without his constant interruptions and eruptions.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.