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Mubarak trial rivets an Arab world in tumult

Former leader rejects charges; Egyptians hail, decry spectacle

Supporters of Hosni Mubarak, the former president of Egypt, clashed with the opposition yesterday outside the courtroom. Supporters of Hosni Mubarak, the former president of Egypt, clashed with the opposition yesterday outside the courtroom. (Ahmed Ali/Associated Press)
By Anthony Shadid
New York Times / August 4, 2011

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CAIRO - An ailing Hosni Mubarak, who served longer than any ruler of modern Egypt until he was overthrown in a revolution in February, was rolled into a courtroom in a hospital bed yesterday and charged with corruption and complicity in the killing of protesters.

Syrian tanks roll in to crush restive city of Hama. A5

The trial was a seminal moment for Egypt and an Arab world roiled by revolt.

Even the most ardent in calling for his prosecution doubted until hours before the trial began that Mubarak, 83, would appear, a reflection of the suspicion and unease that reigns here.

As Mubarak was taken on a hospital gurney into the temporary courtroom, which is located in a police academy that once bore his name, cheers went up from a crowd gathered outside.

“The criminal is coming!’’ shouted Maged Wahba, 40, a lawyer.

The sheer symbolism of the day made it one of the most visceral episodes in modern Arab history. In a region whose destiny was so long determined by rulers who deemed their people unfit to rule, one of those rulers was being tried by his public.

On this day, the aura of power was made mundane, and Mubarak, the former president, dressed in a white track suit and bearing a look some read as disdain, was humbled.

The trial has transfixed a turbulent region, where uprisings have shaken the rule of autocrats and authoritarian rule in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain. Some Arab officials have said the very spectacle of the trial would make those leaders all the more reluctant to step down.

Mubarak was arraigned while lying on the gurney inside a steel cage next to his two sons, Gamal and Alaa, who are also being tried on corruption charges, along with seven other former Egyptian officials, including former interior minister Habib el-Adly.

“The first defendant, Mohammed Hosni al-Sayyid Mubarak,’’ the judge, Ahmed Rifaat, said, speaking to a cage holding Mubarak.

“Sir, I am present,’’ Mubarak replied into a microphone from his bed.

“You heard the charges that the prosecutor made against you,’’ the judge said from the podium. “What do you say?’’

“I deny all these accusations completely,’’ he replied, wearily waving his hand. Then he handed the microphone to his son Gamal.

While the other defendants took a seat, Mubarak’s sons remained standing, the youngest, Gamal, seeming to block the view of his father from the cameras in the courtroom. Mubarak appeared tired but alert, occasionally speaking with his sons, who both held Korans.

As Mubarak denied the charges in the proceedings, which were broadcast on a large-screen television outside the police academy and carried live on state television, his opponents gathered there roared in disapproval.

Yesterday’s sessions lasted about four hours; the trial was then adjourned until Aug. 15.

Mubarak, the former interior minister, and the six officers are charged in connection with killing protesters. The charges can carry the death penalty.

Mubarak and his sons also face charges of corruption, though the accusations - that they received five villas to help a businessman buy state land at a cheaper price - paled before some of the more epic cases of corruption in a country riddled with patronage and misrule.

The scene was tumultuous outside on a sun-drenched parking lot, with a few dozen of Mubarak’s supporters sharing space with his opponents. At times, they scuffled; in intermittent clashes, the two sides threw rocks at each other.

When Mubarak appeared, some of his supporters cried, waving pictures that read, “The insult to Mubarak is an insult to all honorable Egyptians.’’ Others shouted adulation at the screen: “We love you, Mr. President.’’

Those sentiments were overwhelmed by the denunciations of his critics. Someone was finally being held accountable, many said yesterday.

“Today is a triumph over 30 years of tragedy,’’ said Fathi Farouk, 50, a pharmacist who brought his family to watch the trial outside the academy. “We suffered for 30 years, and today is our victory.’’

The appearance of Mubarak was his first since he stepped down Feb. 11 after an 18-day uprising that brought hundreds of thousands into Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo. Since April, when he faced charges, he has resided in a hospital in the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheik, a favorite retreat during his time in power.

Mubarak’s health has remained an issue in the proceedings. There were reports that he had stopped eating, entered a coma, and become depressed, but Egypt’s health minister said the former president was well enough to make the trip to the police academy in the capital.

Egyptian officials said Mubarak would stay at a hospital near Cairo throughout the trial.

Only the 600 people with permits were allowed inside the courtroom, along with civil rights lawyers and a small number of the families of protesters killed in the uprising.

As late as yesterday morning, there was speculation that Mubarak would not appear, given the remarkable humiliation that the trial represented.

The military council of 19 generals that has led Egypt since the revolution seemed loath to put one of their own - their former commander, no less - in a courtroom; in fact, many speculated that the council hoped he might die before the date arrived.

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