Middle East

Egypt after Mubarak: Trial proceeds against the odds

Egyptian man reads newspaper
Image caption Hosni Mubarak's trial is a hot topic of discussion for Egyptians

"Egypt's revolution has won," declared the Egyptian papers.

A day after former President Hosni Mubarak appeared in court, on a stretcher, behind bars, the country is still in shock.

As families gather together to eat the iftar meal, at the end of the Ramadan fast each day, it is the top subject discussed and debated around the table.

When he was finally wheeled into the court, broadcast across Egypt on state TV, protesters jeered, whistled and threw their shoes in contempt.

But other Egyptians were as stunned as they were delighted. Some burst into tears at the sight of the 83-year-old man, once respected by many as the father of the nation, now facing humiliation. Others believed it was a huge distraction from the massive challenges facing Egypt.

Many more remained sceptical. A cartoonist in one newspaper has Hosni Mubarak on his hospital bed surrounded by camera lights. His lawyer is in a director's chair: "Good, now is the time to play the victim," he says.

But almost all observers are agreed this is potentially a turning point for Egypt and the region, as the Arab spring has evolved into a stormy summer.

Reasserting political leadership

This is the first time, probably in history, that an Arab people have ousted their leader and brought him to justice, with no outside intervention. Many Egyptians are intensely proud that they are the first Arab country to achieve this, reasserting their political and cultural leadership of the region.

Opposition supporters know that it was their protests, both before and after the ousting of the former president, that forced the current military leadership to put Hosni Mubarak on trial.

Image caption Some Egyptians burst into tears at the sight of Hosni Mubarak facing humiliation

By agreeing to that demand, the military have bought themselves some time. The protests that kept returning to Tahrir Square have been cleared, and there's no immediate rallying cry to unify the opposition, at least not yet.

Observers are almost unanimous in believing that the military would not have put Hosni Mubarak on trial unless they were forced to. He is "one of them", a former air force commander still lauded as a war hero for his role in the 1973 war with Israel. There was also, reportedly, intense pressure from Saudi Arabia, a key financial backer of Egypt, not to go ahead with the trial.

One consequence of the trial that the military commanders must have dreaded has already happened. Mr Mubarak's defence lawyer has called on the current military leader, Field Marshal Mohamad Hussain Tantawi, to give evidence - in order to try and prove that the military leadership were complicit in the suppression of protests.

There are many other pitfalls ahead. What happens if Hosni Mubarak is convicted of ordering the killing of protesters? Will he really face the death penalty? What will be the reaction if he is acquitted?

So the widespread belief is that the military will work with the judiciary to try and spin out the trial for as long as possible.

Already Hosni Mubarak's trial has been adjourned until 15 August. The trial of his former Interior Minister, Habib el-Adly, has now also been adjourned to 14 August, though that is to allow the defence more time to inspect evidence that has just been released.

It was those sort of delays that led to major opposition protests restarting this summer. The opposition must believe that it was only that sort of sustained pressure that led to yesterday's dramatic courtroom scenes.

So the military may have bought themselves more time. But in the long run the opposition here in Egypt and across the Middle East must surely draw inspiration from this trial to renew their struggle to make all of their leaders answerable to their people.

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