Greeting the Unthinkable: Mubarak on Trial


mubarakCairo – The headlines of newspapers on sale in a subway station once called Mubarak, and now renamed Martyrs’, captured the moment Tuesday that could prove one of the most remarkable in modern Arab history: “The pharaoh in the cage of the accused.”

“This is a true moment of the revolution,” said one passenger, Mohammed Fathi, as trains hurtled through the din of a heaving Cairo.

The cage is precisely how it sounds – a pen barricaded with metal bars, the kind behind which the assassin of Anwar el-Sadat was tried 30 years ago. The pharaoh is Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, a former war hero, president and strongman toppled by the epic protests that gathered in Tahrir Square in February, who is scheduled to face trial Wednesday with his two sons, the former interior minister and six senior police officers.

By nightfall, there was still suspicion over whether Mr. Mubarak, convalescing in a hospital in a Sinai resort, would attend the trial, which will convene in a police academy in Cairo that, like the subway station, once bore his name. But the anticipation rippled across the unsettled landscape of today’s Egypt, where the revolution to overthrow him has proved far easier than the aftermath of building a new order.

In subway stations, libraries, schools and streets of a city seething with summer heat and short tempers, there was a sense of awe, anticipation and doubt at the trial of a figure whose imperial power was once so distant and uncontested that a famous Egyptian novel simply called him the Big Man. In conversations Tuesday over his fate, often heard were cries of justice, calls for vengeance and sentiments in between that felt cathartic.

“Who would have ever imagined that Mubarak would be tried?” asked Ahmed Abdullah, 30, a mechanic, standing before a school once named for Mubarak and now bearing the name of Islam’s first muezzin, or public crier. “Really, who would have believed?”

“Or his sons?” added a friend, Mohammed Ibrahim.

“It’s so strange,” Mr. Abdullah replied.

Even the very prospect of Mr. Mubarak’s trial seemed to mark a new moment in the Arab world. It is perhaps comparable to the capture, trial and execution of Saddam Hussein, though he was overthrown by an American invasion based on a pretext that proved false.

Mr. Mubarak was felled by a popular revolution. The scene of Mr. Mubarak standing before a judge may, in fact, make the Arab revolts in Syria, Libya and Yemen all that much more difficult to resolve. Some Arab officials have said that prosecuting Mr. Mubarak will make strongmen facing their own uprisings more reluctant to leave.

But few in Egypt, even those uneasy at the idea of an ailing 83-year-old man facing charges that carry the penalty of death, worried about those implications. In a country so long ruled by the arbitrary whims of the unaccountable, they felt something had changed.

“We’re a state of law, and the law is being applied,” said Mr. Fathi, an architect.

Egyptian officials said Tuesday that Mr. Mubarak would be brought from Sharm el Sheik aboard a military plane, possibly at dawn, though officials at the hospital where he has stayed with a heart problem said they had yet to receive orders to move him. Mr. Mubarak’s health has remained an issue since April, when he was charged. There were reports that he had stopped eating, entered a coma or become depressed, but the health minister has said he is well enough to make the trip to the police academy in the capital.

About 600 people will be allowed into the courtroom, which will be guarded by 5,000 soldiers and 50 tanks and armored vehicles. For the crowds outside, officials said they would set up monitors to watch the proceedings, which will be broadcast nationwide.

The statements Tuesday were the clearest sign yet that a trial many expected to be delayed would go forward. 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. Many people speculated that the generals were hopeful that he might die before the date arrived. In a reflection of the suspicion that reigns in Cairo, as frustration grows toward a military council whose decisions are opaque and occasionally incoherent, doubts remained that Mr. Mubarak would actually appear. He has not appeared in public since he was overthrown.

“They’ll delay it, then they’ll keep delaying it for the next three to four years,” said Afaf Ali, 19, a student sitting with friends at the Egyptian Public Library. (It, too, once bore Mr. Mubarak’s name.) “No one in the government wants to try him.”

“You know what I’m expecting?” asked her friend, Mohammed Hussein. “Some kind of surprise. What kind of surprise, I don’t know, but it’ll be something big.”

Tahrir Square, in downtown Cairo, is but an echo of the tumultuous scenes in February that inspired the Arab world. On Monday, the military and security forces drove out a dwindling sit-in that had returned to the square last month. The center of Tahrir Square is now encircled by a symbol of Mr. Mubarak’s rule: the black-clad and helmeted riot police who ritually overwhelmed even modest shows of dissent for 30 years. Soldiers in red berets sat under worn graffiti that read, “The Egyptian people are free.”

The prospect of the trial seemed to incarnate all the conflicting emotions about Egypt’s revolution these days – that it had gone too far, or not far enough. Or that the trial would wrongly serve as a symbolic end to the demands of so many in Tahrir Square in February that their revolution was not only about Mr. Mubarak’s fall but also about bringing down the authoritarian state, suffocating and enervating, that he helped build.

One newspaper referred to the “accused Hosni Mubarak,” and for Aboul-Ela Ahmed, someone important was finally being held to account for all the petty humiliations, the bribes, the indignities and the hardships that his state had brought.

“He has to face the judge,” said Mr. Ahmed, a retired driver.

In Martyrs’ Station, near a billboard that read, “Let’s build our country,” Ahmed Sayyid was more reflective. His words were neither a cry for vengeance, nor for justice.

“The only reason we want to try him – the sole reason – is so that he can serve as an example for the person who follows him,” he said. “There is a limit to power.”

{The New York Times/ Newscenter}