Ailing 83-year-old former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, lying ashen-faced on a hospital bed inside a metal defendants’ cage with his two sons standing protectively beside him in white prison uniforms, denied charges of corruption and complicity in the killing of protesters at the start of his historic trial yesterday.
The spectacle, aired live on state television, was a stunning moment for Egyptians. Many savored the humiliation of the man who ruled with unquestionable power for 29 years, during which opponents were tortured, corruption was rife, poverty spread and political life was stifled.
After widespread skepticism that Egypt’s military rulers would allow one of their own — a former head of the air force — to be prosecuted in front of the world, the scene went a long way to satisfy one of the key demands that has united protesters since Feb. 11, when Mubarak fell following an 18-day uprising.
“This is the dream of Egyptians, to see him like this, humiliated like he humiliated them for the last 30 years,” said Ghada Ali, the mother of a 17-year-old girl in the city of Alexandria who was shot to death during the crackdown.
“I want to see their heart explode like my daughter’s heart exploded from their single bullet,” Ali said, breaking down in sobs.
It was the first time Egyptians have seen Mubarak since Feb. 10, when he gave a defiant TV address refusing to resign.
In the courtroom, a prosecutor read the charges against Mubarak — that he was an accomplice along with his then-interior minister in the “intentional and premeditated murder of peaceful protesters” and that he and his sons received gifts from a prominent businessman in return for guaranteeing him a lowered price in a land deal.
“Yes, I am here,” Mubarak said from his bed, raising his hand slightly when the judge asked him to identify himself and enter a plea.
“I deny all these accusations completely,” he said into a microphone, wagging his finger.
His sons pleaded not guilty.
The emotions swirling around the trial were on display outside the heavily secured Cairo Police Academy where the trial was held.
A crowd of Mubarak supporters and hundreds of relatives of slain protesters and other Mubarak opponents massed at the gates, scuffling sporadically as they watched the proceedings on a giant screen. They threw stones and bottles at each other while riot police with shields and helmets tried to keep them apart.
About 50 supporters pounded on the steel gate trying to get into the compound, chanting “We Love you, Mubarak!” until police charged at them with electrified batons and dispersed them.
Some of the supporters had bandaged heads from beatings, and many wore T-shirts with the slogan, “I am Egyptian and I reject the insulting of our leader.”
However, the father of a slain protester, among those sweltering in the heat outside on the third day of fasting in the Muslim month of Ramadan, was ecstatic.
“We are here to tell Hosni, ‘Happy Ramadan, congratulations on your new cage,’” Mohammed Mustafa el-Aqad said.
Yesterday’s court session was largely taken up by procedural measures as lawyers from both sides filed motions, but no matter how dry the action, the sight of Egypt’s one-time most powerful man inside the defendants’ cage, made of iron bars and metal mesh was riveting. Defendants are traditionally held in cages during trials in Egypt.