Former President Hosni Mubarak was brought by helicopter on Wednesday to a Cairo court for the opening of his historic trial on charges of corruption and ordering the killing of protesters during the uprising that ousted him, as hundreds of his opponents and angry supporters scuffled outside.
In a chaotic scene outside the Cairo police academy where the court has been set up, hundreds of policemen in gleaming white uniforms and riot police with shields and helmets separated demonstrators hurling stones and bottles at each other.
It was a sign of the profound emotions stirred by the unprecedented prosecution of the man who ruled Egypt with unquestioned power for 29 years until he was toppled in February by an 18-day uprising. For many Egyptians, the trial is a chance at retribution for decades of oppressive rule in which opponents were tortured, corruption was rife, poverty spread and political life was stifled. But for others, he was a symbol of stability.
The trial is being aired live on state TV to an eager public. The courtroom itself is divided.
The ailing 83-year-old Mubarak and his co-defendants – including his two sons and former interior minister – are to sit in a mesh cage on the left side of the chamber. Relatives of the defendants sat in rows of seats near the cage. A fence running through the middle of the chamber divided them from families of protesters killed in the uprising, kept far enough that they cannot shout or throw anything at the former leader.
Security was extremely heavy outside the courtroom, which has been set up in a lecture hall at what was once named the Mubarak Police Academy in the capital Cairo. Early in the morning, some 50 of Mubarak’s supporters chanting slogans and holding portraits of the former leader gathered outside the venue.
“We will demolish and burn the prison if they convict Mubarak,” they screamed at hundreds of police and army troops backed by armored personnel carriers.
The pro-Mubarak protesters threw stones toward a giant screen set up outside the police academy, though a police cordon kept them a distance away.
For the president’s opponents, it was an unbelieveable moment.
“I have many feelings. I am happy, satisified. I feel this a real success for the revolution, and I feel that the moment of real retribution is near,” Mostafa el-Naggar, one of the leading youth activists who organized the anti-Mubarak uprising and a member of one of Egypt’s newest parties, Justice, said after Mubarak’s arrival at the venue.
“This is a moment no Egyptian ever thought was possible.”
The trial answers, at least partially, a growing clamor in Egypt for justice not only for the wrongs of Mubarak’s authoritarian regime but also for the violent suppression of largely peaceful protests during the 18-day uprising, in which 850 protesters were killed. It came only after heavy pressure by activists on the now ruling military – one of the few demands that still unites the disparate protest movement.
Days before giving up power, as protests raged around him, Mubarak vowed he would die on Egyptian soil. After his fall on Feb. 11, he fled to one of his residences in Sharm. In April, he was moved to a hospital there and placed under arrest as he underwent treatment. Doctors say he suffers from heart problems. There had been skepticism up to the moment Mubarak left the hospital for the airport in a six-car convoy that he would actually appear for the opening of his trial.
Mubarak, his former Interior Minister Habib El Adly, and six top police officers are charged with murder and attempted murder in connection with the 850 protesters killed during the uprising, according to the official charge sheet. All eight could face the death penalty if convicted.
Separately, Mubarak and his two sons – one-time heir apparent Gamal and wealthy businessman Alaa – face charges of corruption. The two sets of charges have been lumped together in one mass trial.
For weeks after his fall, while Mubarak lived in a palace in Sharm El-Sheikh, the ruling generals who took power from him – and who were all appointed by Mubarak before the uprising – appeared reluctant to prosecute him.
Their hand forced, the generals now seem eager to show the public that they are bringing the fruits of the revolution. The trial will be televised live on state TV, and judges say proceedings will be expedited, without long postponements. The around 600 people attending are expected to include relatives of some of the 850 protesters killed during the uprising.
Security is very heavy, with barbed wire and hundreds of troops around the compound. Efforts have been made to ensure spectators in the court can’t get close enough to the defendants’ cage to yell and throw objects at them, the Interior Ministry said.
Many Egyptians are eagerly anticipating the chance at retribution against the longtime ruler. But they also question whether the trial will truly break with the injustices of the past. Some worry that Egypt’s new military rulers are touting the trial as proof that democratic reform has been accomplished, even as activists argue that far deeper change is still needed.
The prosecution is an unprecedented moment in the Arab world, the first time a modern Mideast leader has been put on trial fully by his own people.
The closest event to it was former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s trial, but his capture came at the hands of US troops in 2003 and his special tribunal was set up with extensive consultation with American officials and international experts. Tunisia’s deposed president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, has been tried and convicted several times since his fall several weeks before Mubarak’s, but all in absentia and he remains in exile in Saudi Arabia.
Up until Mubarak was moved from his hospital early Wednesday morning, there had been heavy skepticism that he would actually show. It was thought that he might be exempted for health reasons, after weeks of reports of his worsening condition from the Sharm hospital where he has been held in custody.
If he had not shown, it could have triggered another upheaval of rancorous protests.
For the military, the trial is a chance to try to strengthen its position.
The broader public has grown discontented with the breakdown in security around the country and faltering economy since the uprising began.
Youth groups that led the uprising have continued protests against the military, saying they are fumbling the transition to civilian rule and have not moved to dismantle remnants of Mubarak’s regime still in place. The military itself has been tainted by reports of human rights violations, including torture.
The generals have tried to turn the public against activists, accusing them of receiving foreign funds and training. On Monday, tensions were hiked when troops broke up a 3-week-old sit-in in Tahrir Square by hard-core protesters.
Prosecuting Mubarak is widely popular among a public angered by widespread corruption, police abuses and his lock on political power. Regime opponents, whether Islamists or pro-democracy activists, are eager for retribution after years of crackdowns and torture against them.
The question is whether it will mean a real uprooting of the system he headed.
Mubarak was placed under arrest in April but was admitted to the Sharm hospital for a heart condition, sparing him the indignity of detention in Cairo’s Torah Prison, where his sons and some three dozen former regime figures have been held.
Media reports have spoken of Mubarak refusing to eat and suffering from depression. On Monday, state television said the most recent tests showed his health was “relatively stable” given his age but that his psychological condition was worsening.
But Health Minister Amr Helmy said last week that Mubarak was fit to travel to Cairo to stand trial.