7 August 2011
Egypt holds its breath at the sight of its former president in the dock
Last Wednesday saw the trial of Egypt’s former president Hosni Mubarak, together with his two sons Alaa’ and Gamal, on charges of abusing power to amass wealth and of killing protestors during the 18-day revolt which began on 25 January 2011 and ended in Mubarak stepping down.
The former president was wheeled into the courtroom on a hospital bed. He had been flown to Cairo from hospital in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm al-Sheikh, where he had been detained and receiving treatment since April for a heart condition. His two sons, who had been for some four months in Tora prison, as well as the other defendants in the trial, wore white prison suits. In the dock, a wide iron and mesh cage made especially to accommodate the several defendants, Alaa’ and Gamal stood beside their father, affectionately helping and talking to him. As BBC’s John Simpson reported: “Mr Mubarak was not standing up but lying on a bed, his eyes as sharp and shrewd as ever, making occasional gestures and thoroughly aware of what was going on.
“At the sight of this, there was first silence in the packed courtroom, and then an audible intake of breath. I had the impression that it came not just from the journalists but from the rows of lawyers, and perhaps from the three judges themselves.”
Mubarak is the first Arab leader to stand trial in person.
Former Interior Minister Habib al-Adli and six senior security officials were also on trial in the same case. About 850 people were killed during the unrest. A lawyer acting for families of the dead demanded execution for Adli.
In a strong voice, Mubarak totally denied the charges levelled at him, as did his two sons.
After the session, Judge Ahmed Refaat said Mubarak would be moved to a Cairo hospital.
He said Mubarak would have to attend the next court session, set for 15 August.
Egyptians were divided over the trial of the ailing 83-year-old former president.
“The trial is a historic event for all Arabs, and Arab leaders will see it means that the age of escaping punishment has ended,” said one protestor while, at a small pro-Mubarak rally, people chanted: “Mubarak, hold your head high”.
The former president’s opponents claimed that the sight of him in a hospital bed was mere political theatrics to gain sympathy.
Yet not-a-few are reluctant to see a man who was a bomber pilot and the leader of the air force in the 1973 war with Israel put in the dock. “The man is a war hero, and has served Egypt well during his 30-year rule,” a young engineer told Watani. To humiliate him today so mercilessly is abominable.”
Ra##fat Adel, a university student, said the trial represents the utmost of democracy. But, he said, the defence lawyers did not commit to professional ethics when they asked to listen to the testimony of more than 1,300 witnesses in an attempt to extend the trial period.
Attiyat Lahzy, an employee, told Watani that she, along with her colleagues, wept at the scene of Mubarak on trial. She insisted that most of those who sympathised with the former president were among the working-class and the poorer people.
On Egyptian news sites, reader comments were widely divergent.
Many were leery of Mubarak’s, and his sons’, standard denial of wrongdoing. A comment posted on a news site read: “It looks as though they are the products of the notorious Egyptian educational system of rote-learning; they recited what they’d studied off by heart.”
Other bloggers said the prolonged trial indicated the verdict was predetermined, along the same line, they said, of “standard model answers to school tests”.
“Egypt’s lion Hosni Mubarak is not fallen,” one comment read. “The truth will come out and Mubarak will be redeemed.” Another reader, Antoun, wished Mubarak good health, and reminded he was a war hero and has kept Egypt out of wars all through his rule.
“The man has blood on his hands,” many commented. “No mercy can be shown to him.”
“Who killed the protestors?” one blogger questioned. “Did they shoot themselves?”
“Egyptians, what has become of you?” another reader bemoaned. “Have you reached the point where an 83-year-old on a hospital bed standing trial gives you so much happiness?”
“Very obviously,” a journalist who attended the trial said, “Prison has not broken the Mubaraks; they are true strongmen.” To which another retorted: “It speaks loads of their integrity. To say nothing of the manner in which they stood by their old father—all affection and respect.”
Jubilant Islamists; reserved Church
Islamists were, for the most part jubilant. “Mubarak will get what he deserves and we will build an Islamic State in place of his rule. Islam will triumph above all,” was posted on an Islamic website.
And on the Facebook page of the Coalition of New Muslims, a poll on “Did you ever feel, if for one moment, sympathy for the killer [Mubarak]?” Almost unanimously, the pollsters said they never had. Some visitors to the website said that the trial should be secret, so as not to arouse public sympathy, or that of the judge, for the former president.
One Islamist blogger said Mubarak had “weakened, defeated, humiliated, and shattered Muslims.”
On Coptic websites, the most common word used was “God is present”.
For their part, Coptic associations abroad demanded that Mubarak should be tried for all the crimes committed against the Copts during his rule, most notorious among which are the 1999 and 2000 al-Kosheh incidents, the 2010 Nag Hammadi attack, and the January 2011 Alexandria church bombing.
The Coptic Orthodox and Coptic Catholic churches gave reserved replies when asked by the media to comment on the trial. Spokesmen for the churches displayed concern that public opinion might work to make an impartial, fair trial difficult; saying they would thus give no comment till the verdict was out.