CAIRO — On Wednesday, former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak is expected to appear inside an iron cage, the centerpiece of a makeshift courtroom and a powerful reminder of how much has changed since his ouster nearly six months ago.
Judges who got their jobs during Mubarak’s reign will preside. Egypt’s top prosecutor, appointed by Mubarak, will submit the charges against him. As the proceedings are broadcast live, millions in the country he ruled for three decades will be riveted.
“It’s a decisive moment in the history of the Egyptian people to see this ousted president behind the prosecution cage after seeing him portrayed as a divine figure on television for decades,” said Mahmoud el-Khodairy, a former judge who is a critic of Mubarak.
Mubarak is accused of graft and of ordering the killing of nearly 900 demonstrators who took to the streets during the 18-day uprising that ended when the country’s powerful military chiefs forced him to step aside.
The proceedings against him will likely be a jarring sight for Arab autocrats who have long felt invincible. With the exception of the U.S.-engineered trial of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, no other Arab dictator in modern history has been held to account by his own people.
Many Egyptians have grown weary of the country’s interim military leadership, led by Mubarak’s longtime defense minister, Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, and have voiced doubt in recent months that the trial would go forward. But the military rulers, under growing public pressure to try Mubarak and others, appear willing to proceed, and judicial and security officials have offered reassurances that the former president and decorated war hero will in fact be tried.
Egypt’s health minister said last week that Mubarak is well enough to stand trial, despite assertions from the 83-year-old’s camp that he is in failing health. The interior minister said Sunday that officials were medically and logistically prepared to transfer Mubarak from the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, where he is hospitalized, to Cairo.
At the national police academy in a Cairo suburb, “Lecture Hall No. 1” is being fashioned into a courtroom, complete with a cage with iron bars for the defendants. Mubarak will stand trial with his two sons, as well as former interior minister Habib el-Adli and several other defendants. The judge overseeing the case will allow 600 people to observe from inside the hall.
The proceedings will likely be brief and quickly postponed once the defendants enter their pleas and the two sides make requests that the judges must review. And they will provide an important test of a judicial system that was once subservient to Mubarak.
“The question is, can he get a fair trial in the current political environment?” said Elijah Zarwan, an Egypt expert at the International Crisis Group. “There are new masters now, and so soon after [Mubarak’s] fall, have they had time to gather the evidence in this case?”
A poll conducted this spring by the International Republican Institute, a U.S.-funded nonprofit group, showed that Egypt’s court system had higher approval ratings among Egyptians than political parties, the independent media, the business community or state-run media. Mubarak’s trial was a key demand of the protesters, including many relatives of those slain during the uprising, who have camped out in recent weeks in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and other places.
But moving ahead quickly with the trial of the former president and his co-defendants also carries risks, analysts and human rights groups said.
They argue that Mubarak’s excesses and abuses lasted 30 years, but his trial will encompass only a few corruption charges and his conduct during the popular revolution that forced him from office.
“There is such a focus on speed that one wonders how these proceedings are going to be conducted,” said Michael Hanna, an Egypt expert at the Century Foundation. “You would want to be systematic about creating an unimpeachable story about excesses and abuses for 30 years, not just 18 days.”
On the eve of the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from dawn to sundown and give alms, many said they looked at the trial as a gift.
At a co-op where people buy subsidized food in a middle-class neighborhood in central Cairo, Rami Ali Bayali, 32, stocked shelves. Before the revolution, he was a day laborer and had no contract for full-time work. But after the revolution, he forced his employer, Gamal El Tabeu, to give him a contract.
Mubarak “destroyed a whole generation and Egypt has to rebuild itself now,” Bayali said, dressed in a dirty pink shirt. “I want truth and justice.”
“He should be put on trial 1,500 times for what he’s done to us,” added Mohammed Ahmed, a co-worker.
El Tabeu interrupted his employees and a customer who said he wanted Mubarak to die a slow death to avenge the torture and corruption of his government.
“Mubarak should not be killed,” El Tabeu said. “He’s not only the symbol of this country. He was a symbol of the entire Middle East.”
Ahmed and Bayali said they would watch Wednesday to see whether the proceedings seemed like they could be truly just. They made it clear that Mubarak should be tried by his people, in his country.
But El Tabeu said he wouldn’t turn on the television. He doesn’t want to see Mubarak dressed in the white shirt and pants of a common criminal.
“I don’t want to see him like that,” he said. “Most people don’t want him to be tried. He was our father.”Top