Egypt’s ex-President Hosni Mubarak was wheeled into court in a hospital bed on the first day of his trial for conspiring to kill some of the protesters who drove him from office in February.
The former ruler appeared in a caged enclosure in the Cairo court alongside his two sons, Alaa and Gamal, and former Interior Minister Habib el-Adli, and pleaded not guilty. The defendants wore prison suits. For most Egyptians, it was the first sighting of the man who ruled them for three decades since he was forced to quit on Feb. 11 after a mass uprising. The trial was adjourned until Aug. 15, and Mubarak will be kept in a hospital on the outskirts of Cairo until then.
“The era of pharaohs has ended,” said Khaled el-Sayed, a member of the Alliance of the Youths’ Revolution, which helped organize protests against Mubarak. “This trial is a turning point in the history of Egypt and the whole Arab world. It enshrines rules for the new Egypt that we dream of, and that many martyrs have sacrificed their lives for.”
Prosecuting Mubarak is a key demand of the demonstrators who have held sit-ins in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and elsewhere. From Islamists to secular activists, most opposition groups agree that Mubarak must be held accountable for Egypt’s autocratic past, even while they differ on what its future under democracy should look like.
‘I Deny Them’
Mubarak, a key ally of the U.S. and Israel while in power, was also charged with abusing his office to acquire property for himself and his sons, and selling natural gas to Israel at below-market prices. “These accusations, I deny them all,” the recumbent 83-year-old said when handed a microphone, speaking for the first time after two hours in court.
The trial comes as Egypt is struggling to repair its economy and establish rules for its first post-Mubarak election. Opposition movements across the region are fighting to emulate the success of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, and to get rid of autocratic rulers.
Egypt’s benchmark EGX30 stock index dropped 0.9 percent at the 1:30 p.m. close in Cairo, extending its decline this year to more than 30 percent. Yields on the dollar bond maturing in 2020 rose 4 basis points to 5.44 percent.
‘Killed My Son’
Outside the court, supporters and opponents of Mubarak hurled stones at each other and police charged toward the crowd to separate the groups. Some Mubarak loyalists broke down in tears in front of a giant screen broadcasting from inside the court. Other demonstrators demanded his execution.
“I had to come here today,” said Raqya Mohammed, holding a photo of her son, who died during the protests. “It was Hosni who killed my son. No one could have done anything without his orders.”
Mubarak’s sons were also charged with corruption. His lawyer, Farid elDib, today asked that Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Mubarak’s longtime defense minister who heads the military council now running the country, be brought before the court to testify.
The trial is taking place in a makeshift courtroom in a police academy once named after Mubarak, and was shown live on state television.
‘Retire in Dignity’
The former ruler has been in custody in a hospital in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik. He was brought to court by helicopter. In April, state television said Mubarak was hospitalized after having a heart attack while being questioned. His health was later cited as a reason he could not be transferred to a Cairo prison.
At least 846 people were killed during the revolt against Mubarak, sparked by poor living conditions, political repression and complaints about corruption and police abuses.
The prosecution of Mubarak is a result of popular pressure on the generals who have been running Egypt since his ouster, said Elijah Zarwan, a senior analyst in Cairo for the International Crisis Group. “If they could, they would still like to let him retire in dignity, if it weren’t for the protests and the public calls,” he said. Army officials say the case is a matter for the judiciary.
The uprising against Mubarak hurt Egypt’s economy, which shrank an annual 4.2 percent in the first quarter as tourists stayed away and factory output was cut by strikes.
‘Very Divided Country’
Transition to democracy is opening rifts among Egyptians who united to drive Mubarak out. The ruling military council says it will hand over power after parliamentary elections, expected later this year, and a subsequent presidential vote. Opposition groups have sparred over the timing of elections and the process of writing a new constitution.
A July 29 rally in Cairo called as a show of unity between political factions was dominated by Islamists, who were suppressed under Mubarak, and instead exposed divisions as many secular groups withdrew.
“There’s less room for optimism than there was two or three months ago,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. “This has become a very divided country.”
At least over Mubarak’s trial, there is broad agreement, though not unanimity. “I am here because I refuse to let the man who has been the symbol of my country get humiliated,” said Tawfeeq Haitham, 20, one of the pro-Mubarak protesters outside the court. His head bandaged after an injury during the clashes, he said: “This man was protecting us from such thuggery.”
Fifty-three people were hurt in the fighting, the state-run Middle East News Agency said.
It’s almost unprecedented for an Arab nation to put a former leader in the dock for past crimes. Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia a month before Mubarak’s ouster, has been convicted of multiple offenses in absentia. Saddam Hussein, who was executed in 2006, was tried in a court set up by occupying U.S. forces.
The case may embolden protesters in other Arab countries, Hamid said.
Syrian demonstrators took to the streets in mid-March, and President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces have since killed more than 2,000 people. The conflict in Libya between Muammar al-Qaddafi and rebels against his rule began a month earlier, and Bahrain’s rulers ordered a crackdown in which more than 30 people were killed and hundreds detained.
“Mubarak’s trial gives us hope,” Atem Shembesh, a high-school student in Benghazi, the stronghold of Libya’s rebels, said by phone. “Who would have thought before the Egyptian revolution that this would happen to Mubarak. God willing, it’s going to be the same for Qaddafi, or worse.”
“There’s a powerful symbolic value,” Hamid said. “Here’s one of the longest-serving autocrats in modern history, and he’s in a cage, and he will be held accountable for his crimes.”