CAIRO – Flat on his back and flanked by two sons dressed in prison whites, Hosni Mubarak peered from his hospital bed through the bars and mesh of a cage as the accusations were read. It was a scene of startling symbolism: A once untouchable family brought to justice by an emerging democracy they sought for years to crush.
“You have heard the charges the prosecutor made against you,” said Judge Ahmed Refaat. “What do you say?”
“I totally deny all these charges,” said Mubarak, holding a microphone, his face stern, his voice strong.
The strange spectacle of Mubarak, the epitome of the Arab autocrat, being rolled into a courtroom Wednesday to stand trial on charges of killing protesters has mesmerized a country still tangled in the throes of an unfinished revolution.
Most Egyptians celebrated. But the images, broadcast to millions throughout the Arab world, probably unnerved the rulers of Libya, Syria, Yemen and other nations swept up in rebellions inspired by the 18-day revolt that brought down Mubarak’s three-decade old government in February. Mubarak’s trial is an indication of what may await them if they fall.
What is unfolding in Cairo is a landmark moment for the region. The former Egyptian president is an icon of the past and all its transgressions. Egyptians believe if he can be brought to justice, their country can lead the way to political and economic revival across the Middle East and North Africa.
“It still feels like a dream,” said Mohammed Farouk, a pharmacist watching the trial in the Doctor’s Cafe in downtown Cairo. “This is the same state television channel that used to make it appear that the whole world revolved around Hosni Mubarak. Now, this same station is showing him defeated and lying in a cage.”
A policeman sitting nearby shouted: “Hang ’em.”
It was difficult to overstate the passions arising around the nationally televised trial of Mubarak, humbled, if not humiliated, in a courtroom of black-robed lawyers and the unwavering narrative of prosecutor Mustafa Suleiman, who read the charges amid the hum of overhead fans.
One son, Gamal, who many had suspected would become president one day, leaned over his father. The other, Alaa, clutched a Quran. Co-defendants Habib Adli, the former interior minister, and six top police officials sat quietly in the cage. The prosecutor said Mubarak “allowed (Adli) to use live ammunition.”
Many Egyptians had doubted that Mubarak, who was flown in by helicopter, would even attend the hearing. He had been in custody at a hospital in a Red Sea resort since suffering a heart attack in April. Days before the trial, he was reportedly refusing to eat and in depression. But authorities, facing tremendous pressure from political parties and youth activists, ordered him to appear.
Mubarak, whose trial has been adjourned until Aug. 15, has been transferred from the Sharm El-Sheikh hospital on the Red Sea to a hospital outside Cairo.