Mubarak to share cage in courtroom with his sons as trial begins
CAIRO // Not long ago, a confident Hosni Mubarak announced to the world that he would rule Egypt until his last breath.
In a biting and perhaps poignant reminder of just how far Egypt's ruler has fallen, Mr Mubarak will share a cage with his two sons when he goes on trial today in a makeshift courtroom on charges of stealing millions of dollars from the state and ordering the use of lethal force against protesters during the uprising that toppled his 29-year regime.
If convicted, the 83-year-old former air force chief could face the death penalty.
The nation's top prosecutor ordered on Sunday that Mr Mubarak be brought to the court from his hospital at a Red Sea resort, the strongest sign to date that the former leader will stand trial.
However, it remains far from certain that Mr Mubarak will be present when hearings open at a lecture room at the national police academy in a Cairo suburb.
Nevertheless, the fact that an Arab dictator will appear in court to face justice by his own people will be a landmark event the like of which has not been seen in the Arab world, at least not in living memory.
Saddam Hussein was tried, convicted and hanged in Iraq after his overthrow in 2003, but the entire judicial process that culminated at the gallows was orchestrated and overseen by the Americans.
So, the Saddam trial does not really count, while Mr Mubarak's is a purely Egyptian affair.
Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the former Tunisian leader who was removed from power by a popular revolt just weeks before Mr Mubarak, was sentenced to 66 years in prison after being convicted in absentia of embezzlement, illegal possession of weapons and narcotics, housing frauds and abuse of power. However, he remains in exile in Saudi Arabia, which has refused to extradite him.
Mr Mubarak's trial will signal a significant triumph for the protesters, who have been demanding since their uprising began in January that he, along with the stalwarts of his regime, be put on a public trial.
Lately, that demand became the centrepiece of a controversial sit-in protest at Cairo's Tahrir Square by several hundred hard-core protesters. The demonstrations caused tensions between revolutionary youth groups and the generals who have ruled Egypt since Mr Mubarak's ouster.
The ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the protesters insist, has been stalling on the prosecution of Mr Mubarak, possibly out of respect for, or gratitude to, a man without whose patronage they may not have reached the pinnacle of the military. They contend that the generals, again out of respect or gratitude, have deliberately shielded Mr Mubarak and his family from the public eye, not allowing photographs of them to be published, for instance.
Mr Mubarak fled to the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh the day of his ouster, along with his wife Suzanne, his two sons and their wives and children. Egyptians only heard from him once, when the Dubai-based news channel Al Arabiya broadcast an audio tape recorded by the former leader in which he defended his record as president.
Since April he has been kept under arrest at a Sharm el-Sheikh hospital to which he was admitted for a heart condition. Conflicting reports about his physical and mental condition have circulated since then, with the health ministry repeatedly denying rumours about his condition, including suggestions that he was near death.
The latest of those reports spoke of the former president refusing food and his wife and doctors constantly trying to persuade him to eat. Another report said it was his wife, in the presence of his doctors, who informed him of the decision to put him on trial in Cairo.
If Mr Mubarak actually shows up in person for his trial, he will have to endure the humiliation of sitting inside a metal defendants' cage along with his 10 co-defendants. It would also be the first known reunion between Mr Mubarak and his two sons, who are accused of corruption in the same case and have been in detention in a prison just south of Cairo. The eight other defendants are the former interior minister Habib El Adly, Mr Mubarak's close friend Hussein Salem and six top police officers.
Only Mr Mubarak, Mr El Adly and the six officers are charged with ordering the use of deadly force against the protesters. All eight could receive the death sentence if found guilty.
Doubtless, Mr Mubarak and his entourage viewed the announcement last week by Egypt's health minister that the ex-president was well enough to stand trial in Cairo as just another of a long series of indignities that have been heaped upon him.
If he had to endure a trial, surely Sharm el-Sheikh was his preferred venue. For years, he has been the unofficial patron saint of Sharm el-Sheikh, raising its profile by hosting world leaders and conducting much of the state's business from the city.
Despite the prosperity and publicity Mr Mubarak helped bring to Sharm el-Sheikh, residents let out a collective sigh of relief when it was announced he would be tried in the capital. Such a high-profile trial in the city, many businessmen and residents argued, would deal tourism there a body blow from which it would not quickly recover.
Ahmed Rifaat, the tough-talking judge who will try Mr Mubarak, told a news conference on Sunday that the former leader would get a speedy trial with hearings held everyday. He also said that all hearings would be shown live on state television and the feed would be available to other broadcasters as well.
He said 600 people would be allowed in the large lecture room where the trial will be held. Besides Mr Mubarak's defence team, close relatives of the defendants, families of victims and members of the media will be allowed seats.
Mr Rifaat vowed that the proceedings would be transparent, orderly and in conformity with the law. "It is the right of the Egyptian people to be assured that what takes place in the courtroom conforms to the law," said the silver-haired Mr Rifaat, who read a prepared statement to the news conference and left without answering questions.
Published: August 3, 2011 04:00 AM