08.03.11

Mubarak’s Judgment Day

Thrown in a cage, the humbled former Egyptian president pleaded not guilty on the opening day of his trial. Alastair Beach reports from Cairo and talks to the jeering crowds outside.

It was only when the chopper appeared out of the bright, blue sky that many Egyptians finally believed that their fallen pharaoh would face the music.

Some had been waiting in the morning sunshine for at least two hours, standing outside the vast police-academy complex on the eastern edge of Cairo where former president Hosni Mubarak is being tried in a makeshift courtroom.

At around 8:55 a.m., as the helicopter buzzed in over the ranks of news teams and satellite dishes, there were cheers from some of the crowd as it dipped toward the ground and landed beyond the 15-foot wall surrounding the academy.

“The criminal is here! The criminal is here!” shouted a group of protesters waving Egyptian flags and homemade banners. Not far away a couple of soldiers cradled their Kalashnikovs as they eyed the action from an armored personnel carrier.

Until this morning many Egyptians had suspected that the man who had ruled them since 1981 might somehow evade his date with destiny.

“I thought it wasn’t going to happen,” Mohammad Quessny, 23, told The Daily Beast while standing in front of the giant TV screen erected outside the academy. “Now he is here. I can’t believe it.”

Neither could some of the pro-Mubarak supporters who had arrived to voice their support. Before the former president entered the courtroom, there were a number of running battles with the anti-Mubarak crowds. Squads of baton-wielding riot police charged in and separated the sides under a shower of rocks and abuse.

It was not long before Mubarak, a frail 83-year-old who was Air Force chief during Egypt’s 1973 war with Israel, appeared in front of the cameras. Accompanied by his two sons, Gamal and Alaa, who were both dressed in white prison uniforms, the former president cut a pathetic figure as he was wheeled in on a hospital bed.

Video screenshot
“I think Hosni Mubarak killed my friend. So I’m very happy to see him and his sons in the cage.”

Together, along with the widely reviled former interior minister, Habib al-Adly, and six former police officials, they stood inside a hastily erected defendant’s cage and peered out like trapped rabbits.

Occasionally Mubarak, who stands accused of complicity in killing protesters, would turn his head toward the judge, apparently trying to follow proceedings. His two sons, both carrying Korans, could be seen talking to their father.

He spoke only to confirm his name and answer the charges against him. "Yes, I am here," he said into a microphone. "I deny all these accusations completely.”

Out in the courtroom, which rumormongers had suggested was so tightly vetted that even famed British reporter Robert Fisk was having trouble getting in, the auditorium was divided. Relatives of the defendants sat near the cage, made of iron bars and wire mesh.

A fence running down the middle of the courtroom separated them from an audience of around 300, some of them relatives of dead protesters.

There had been reports that Mubarak, who had been staying under guard in a Sharm el-Sheikh hospital prior to today’s hearing, might be deemed unfit for trial. Many people even voiced concerns that the sight of an aging ex-autocrat being prosecuted might sway the sympathies of Egypt’s less zealous revolutionaries.

Outside the courtroom, one Egyptian who works for a U.S. publication was startled by her former leader’s appearance. “I’ve no sympathy for him, but to see an ex-president on a bed like that is...” Her voice trailed off.

Likewise, 22-year-old Ali Eid Ali expressed a modicum of empathy for his deposed president. “In the past Hosni Mubarak was a very important man. I hope that Habib al-Adly is executed, but Mubarak should not be killed.”

Nonetheless, it didn’t stop Eid Ali from milking the commercial opportunities on offer. He had brought a selection of large Egyptian flags with him and was hawking them at $1 a pop. “I’ve been here since 7 a.m. and sold around 10,” he said.

Many others remained unmoved when Mubarak took his place in the dock—perhaps one of the most extraordinary sights in modern legal history.

Dr. Ali Abdul Aziz, 32, was outside the courtroom in support of his friend Gharb Abdul Ali, a businessman and father of two who was shot dead during the protests on January 28 in Cairo.

Dressed in a brown, pinstriped suite and using a large picture of his friend to shield his head from the midday sun, he said, “I think Hosni Mubarak killed my friend. So I’m very happy to see him and his sons in the cage.”

After a few hours of proceedings, the judge ordered that the trial of Mubarak and his sons be adjourned until August 15.

The case against al-Adly, also accused of complicity in killing demonstrators, will continue tomorrow.

As Egyptians wait to see what happens next, the world really has never known anything quite like it.