Arab world gripped by opening of Mubarak trial

Opponents and supporters of Mubarak regime say they never expected to see the day, as one Egyptian declares: 'I don't believe this … to see a president being tried … I never imagined it. I am so happy.'

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CAIRO/SHARM EL-SHEIKH // Egyptians and their fellow Arabs were enthralled yesterday by the unprecedented sight of Hosni Mubarak, a leader of the region for three decades, being wheeled into court.

Outside the courtroom in Cairo, they watched on a big screen as the octogenarian, who ruled Egypt for 30 years, lay on a hospital trolley connected to a drip. "I don't believe this … to see a president being tried … I never imagined it. I am so happy," Ahmed Amer, 30, an employee in a water service company, said outside the court.

A Bahraini activist called Online Bahrain addressed other Arab autorcrats across the Arab world: "Dear Arab dictator, take a long hard look at Mubarak. He was just as powerful as you were. Your time is up if you don't change."

Some thought it would inspire those protesters trying to oust their own leaders, such as Syria's Bashar Al Assad, who has used his military to try to crush an uprising. "The trial no doubt inspires Syrians and raises their hopes of the victory of their cause for freedom," said Imadeddin Al Rashid, an Islamic law professor who fled Syria. The opening of the trial coincided with a push by Syrian forces into Hama.

In Yemen, protesters were glued to small television sets they had brought into the tents where they camped out in Sanaa.

Mr Mubarak was not the first Arab leader to fall in the Arab Spring, but he is the first to stand trial in person. The former Tunisian president, Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali, who was toppled first, fled to Saudi Arabia and was tried in absentia.

There are contrasts with the trial of Iraq's Saddam Hussein, kicked out of office by a US-led force and not his own people.

If convicted, Mr Mubarak could face the death penalty, though few expect that outcome.

Some dismissed the proceedings. A government adviser in Saudi Arabia, which tolerates no dissent and has no political parties, criticised putting Mr Mubarak on trial. "You realise that these idiotic people are going to destroy whatever is left of the Egyptian state, this is a masquerade," the adviser said. "This is a humiliating spectacle for everyone. There is nothing to be proud of. Time will tell."

Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International's director for the Middle East and North Africa, said: "This trial presents a historic opportunity for Egypt to hold a former leader and his circle to account for crimes committed during their rule."

Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said: "If these proceedings scrupulously reflect the international fair trial standards, it will embody a clean break with the record of impunity that characterised Hosni Mubarak's rule, contribute to a new and hopeful chapter in Egypt's history, and set an important regional precedent."

* Reuters with additional reporting by Agence France-Presse