CAIRO — Former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak arrived in a Cairo courtroom Wednesday, where he is expected to appear inside an iron cage to face trial on corruption charges — a powerful reminder of how much has changed since his ouster nearly six months ago.
Judges who got their jobs during Mubarak’s reign will preside. Egypt’s top prosecutor, appointed by Mubarak, will submit the charges against him. As the proceedings are broadcast live, millions in the country he ruled for three decades will be riveted.
Egyptian television broadcast picures of the former leader arriving by helicopter at the venue, a police academy, and then being driven by an ambulance to the makeshift courtroom. Earlier he was flown to Cairo by military plane from the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
Before his arrival, hundreds of Mubarak supporters and opponents clashed outside the venue, throwing stones and bottles at each other, the Associated Press reported.
“It’s a decisive moment in the history of the Egyptian people to see this ousted president behind the prosecution cage after seeing him portrayed as a divine figure on television for decades,” said Mahmoud el-Khodairy, a former judge who is a critic of Mubarak.
Mubarak is accused of graft and of ordering the killing of nearly 900 demonstrators who took to the streets during an 18-day uprising that ended when the country’s powerful military chiefs forced him to step aside in February.
The proceedings against Mubarak will serve as an important test of a judicial system that was once subservient to him. And they will probably be a jarring sight for other Arab autocrats who have long felt invincible. With the exception of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s U.S.-engineered trial, no other Arab leader in modern history has been held to account in front of his people. Former Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the first leader to be ousted in the Arab Spring, fled to Saudi Arabia but was tried and convicted twice in absentia.
Many Egyptians have grown weary of their country’s interim military leadership, led by Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, who was a defense minister under Mubarak, and have voiced doubt in recent months that the trial would go forward. But the military rulers, under growing public pressure to try Mubarak and other former officials, appear willing to proceed, and judicial and security officials have offered reassurances that the former president and decorated war hero will be tried.
Egypt’s health minister said last week that Mubarak was well enough to stand trial, despite assertions from the 83-year-old’s camp that he is in failing health. The interior minister said Sunday that officials were medically and logistically prepared to transfer Mubarak from the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, where he is hospitalized, to Cairo. On Tuesday, security authorities were told to move him to Cairo overnight, the television news channel al-Arabiya reported.
At the national police academy in a Cairo suburb, “Lecture Hall No. 1” is being fashioned into a courtroom. A cage for the defendants — a fixture in Egyptian criminal trials — has been built for the occasion. The cage, about 25 feet wide and with iron bars, sits at the front of the hall and will contain Mubarak, his two sons, former interior minister Habib al-Adli and several other defendants, all dressed in white. The judges will wear black robes.
The roads from Tora prison — where Mubarak’s sons have been held since April — to the police academy will be under heavy security, and the government said that more than 3,000 troops and 20 tanks would protect the academy.
The judge overseeing the case will allow 600 people inside the hall, and the proceedings are likely to be brief and quickly postponed once the defendants enter their pleas and the two sides make requests that the judges must review.
“The question is, can he get a fair trial in the current political environment?” said Elijah Zarwan, an Egypt expert at the International Crisis Group. “There are new masters now, and, so soon after [Mubarak’s] fall, have they had time to gather the evidence in this case?”
A poll conducted this spring by the International Republican Institute, a U.S.-funded nonprofit group, showed that Egypt’s court system had higher approval ratings among the people compared with political parties, the independent media, the business community or state-run media. Mubarak’s trial was a key demand of the protesters, including many relatives of those slain during the uprising, who have camped out in recent weeks in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and were forcibly removed by the military on Monday.
But moving ahead quickly with the trial of the former president and his co-defendants also carries risks, analysts and human rights groups said.
They said that Mubarak’s excesses and abuses lasted 30 years but that his trial will encompass only a few corruption charges and his conduct during the revolution.
“There is such a focus on speed that one wonders how these proceedings are going to be conducted,” said Michael Hanna, an Egypt expert at the Century Foundation. “You would want to be systematic about creating an unimpeachable story about excesses and abuses for 30 years, not just 18 days.”
As the holy month of Ramadan — when Muslims fast from dawn to sundown and give alms — approached over the weekend, many Egyptians said they looked at the trial as a gift.
At a co-op where people buy subsidized food in a middle-class neighborhood in central Cairo, Rami Ali Bayali, 32, stocked shelves. Before the revolution, he was a day laborer and had no contract for full-time work. But after the revolution, he forced his employer, Gamal el-Tabeu, to give him a contract.
Mubarak “destroyed a whole generation, and Egypt has to rebuild itself now,” Bayali said. “I want truth and justice.”
“He should be put on trial 1,500 times for what he’s done to us,” added Mohammed Ahmed, a co-worker.
Tabeu interrupted his employees and a customer who said he wanted Mubarak to die a slow death to avenge the torture perpetrated by his government.
“Mubarak should not be killed,” Tabeu said. “He’s not only the symbol of this country, he was a symbol of the entire Middle East.”
Ahmed and Bayali said they would watch the proceedings on television Wednesday to judge whether they appeared just. They made it clear that Mubarak should be tried by his people, in his country.
But Tabeu said he wouldn’t turn on the television. He doesn’t want to see Mubarak dressed in the white shirt and pants of a common criminal.
“I don’t want to see him like that,” Tabeu said. “Most people don’t want him to be tried. He was our father.”