Troops bow to people power as humiliated Mubarak faces court
Egypt broke with centuries of Arab history yesterday when its former dictator Hosni Mubarak was wheeled into court on a hospital trolley to answer to the people he subjugated for three decades.
For the first time in the modern Middle East -- indeed for the first time in Egypt's 4,000-year existence -- an Arab leader has been called to account not as a result of foreign intervention, as was the case with Saddam Hussein, but because of the public will.
Almost until the minute the courtroom doors opened, many Egyptians were convinced that they would have their moment of triumph denied to them by the former president's military acolytes, who have managed the country's transition since Mr Mubarak's overthrow on February 11.
But in the end, just as Mr Mubarak had done, they bowed to people power, choosing to betray their loyalty to the man they once served in order to ward off a new revolution, this time aimed at Egypt's senior officer class.
The moment all Egypt seemed to be waiting for came on a blazing summer morning shortly after 10am and was beamed live to a mesmerised nation as yet another taboo -- televising court sessions -- was broken. Flanked by his widely hated sons Gamal and Alaa, both dressed in white prison uniforms, Mr Mubarak was rolled into a barred cage covered in mesh in a corner of the court.
The 83-year-old, who suffers from a heart condition and possibly from stomach cancer, appeared frail and ashen-faced. Although there was still a trace of defiance in his eyes, there was no denying the humiliation of his ordeal.
A man who brooked no hint of dissent, tossing thousands of dissidents into prison and Egypt's infamous torture chambers, was now being forced to endure the same ordeal so many of his former subjects had faced before him.
All the trappings of the once unquestioned power he wielded had been shorn away, his fallen state underlined by the fact that he has not even been afforded the privilege of standing trial alone.
Instead, there were nine other defendants in the cage with him, his two sons, his former interior minister Habib al-Adli and six senior security officers, all charged with orchestrating the deaths of 800 protesters during the uprising that led to his overthrow. Like Mr Mubarak, they all face the death penalty if convicted.
Apart from charges of causing the deaths of protesters, the former president is also accused of profiting corruptly from a property deal and an arrangement to supply Israel with natural gas at well below market prices.
His sons, clutching copies of the Koran, also denied the charges levelled at them.
Outside the courtroom, housed in a police academy on the outskirts of Cairo that, until February, bore Mr Mubarak's name, protesters followed every turn of the often chaotic spectacle with open glee and disbelief.
"If you had told an Egyptian even a year ago that one day he would see Mubarak in a courtroom cage answering for his crimes, he would have said you were crazy," said one bystander.
Many watching proceedings were relatives of those killed during the uprising and held aloft posters showing photographs of their loved ones.
For them, the trial of Mr Mubarak is as much about vengeance as it is about justice.
"I want to see Hosni Mubarak humiliated," said Rasha Ali, whose brother Yahya was shot four times and killed as he attempted to rescue wounded protesters during the uprising.
But in a reflection of the growing polarisation within Egyptian society, not everyone outside the court was an enemy of the former dictator. A group of Mr Mubarak's supporters wearing T-shirts proclaiming their loyalty set up banners underneath the big screen beaming pictures from the courtroom before embarking on a series of devout chants.
"Our president is not corrupt and never has been," said Amal Ghaneim (32) an engineer. "Mubarak meant security and stability and without him we will have chaos. All of this is lies."
Moments later, the inevitable happened as the two rival groups set on each other with fists and stones. "We love you, our president," the loyalists shouted. Immediately the response came back: "Hang him! Hang him!"
Riot police eventually succeeded in separating the two groups. The loyalists later melted away and calm was restored -- at least until the trial resumes for its formal phase on August 15. (© Daily Telegraph, London)