CAIRO, Egypt — Former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s chief defense lawyer today gave the opening arguments in what will be a month-long bid to strike down charges of murder and corruption against the erstwhile leader, in a landmark case that has gripped the nation since he was ordered before the court last May.
Calling Mubarak a “patriot” who “would never kill his people,” according to news reports, lawyer Farid el Deeb passionately defended his dictator client against accusations he ordered the killing of some 800 protestors in last year’s popular uprising, and for which the prosecution has requested the death penalty.
“He should not be on trial,” said Yousry Abdel Razek, the head of a group of lawyers volunteering to aid in the ailing, 82-year-old Mubarak’s defense. “In fact, we should be giving him awards for being our president.”
The divisive hearing — its slow, erratic progress, as well as its outcome — is emerging as a symbol of how Egypt is faring, and will fare, in the volatile period following its unprecedented revolution.
When Mubarak was shown on national television being wheeled into the courtroom on a stretcher last August, most Egyptians were in awe of what their street-level demonstrations had managed to accomplish.
“The Pharaoh,” as they once called him for his seemingly untouchable rule, was finally in the dock.
But as the current transition to democracy stalls under army rule, and ordinary Egyptians grow increasingly frustrated with continued protests they say harms the economy, the light of hope for justice against the dictator and his cronies grows dim.
“I know at the end he will be acquitted,” 44-year-old Taha Abbas, a graduate in commercial trade who now sells blenders on a Cairo street corner, said of Mubarak. “I don't believe that as long as SCAF [the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, Egypt’s caretaker generals] is in power that Mubarak will be found guilty.”
The trial itself has been as messy and confusing a spectacle as the post-uprising transition, marked by media blackouts, leaks, conspiracy theories, bureaucratic hurdles and violence between pro- and anti-Mubarak protestors outside the Cairo courtroom.
The bundling together of widely different accusations — including corruption-related charges and murder — as well as defendants, of which there are eight, is “legally strange” and makes for unpredictable and complicated court sessions, said Amir Salem, who is representing the families of those killed in the uprising.
In addition to murder, Mubarak is under indictment for illegally exporting natural gas to Israel and purchasing a sprawling, private Red Sea villa at an amount less than the value of the land on which it was built.
His two sons also face corruption charges, and the former interior minister, Habib el Adly, and five of his aides, are accused of giving orders to kill protestors.
Many here are worried that the few charges brought against Mubarak and his entourage cannot necessarily be proven, and actually muddle the three decades of oppression and state-sanctioned police brutality that accompanied his rule.
Mubarak’s lawyers say they have papers that prove he called on the army to intervene and stop police, controlled by the Ministry of Interior, from shooting protestors.
“Right now, the Mubarak trial is like a salad,” said 40-year-old newspaper vendor, Ali El Suleimeny, using a popular Arabic expression to describe chaos. “There is law. Even if he did not intend to kill the protesters, he should be punished for whatever he did over the past 30 years.”
But some here say the current political environment — where SCAF appears unwilling to punish security forces for cracking down on protestors, and many Egyptians want a swift end to the trial and to the protests, no matter the verdict — could mean Mubarak is eventually acquitted or given a light sentence.
“We want a solution to stabilize this country,” said an elderly woman and Cairo resident, but who refused to give her name. “If no verdict is issued before Jan. 25 [the one-year anniversary of the uprising], then there will be another uprising and we are tired of all of this. Whoever is mistaken should get his punishment, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be Mubarak.”
Questions are being raised about the impartiality of SCAF and its foot soldiers when it comes to the trial.
“What is worrisome is that members of the police and some members of the military are giving [Habib el Adly] a military salute,” said Ghada Shabandar, a member of the board of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. “This, coupled with the fact that police have clearly favored pro-Mubarak demonstrators outside the courtroom, gives one the idea that the current rulers might actually be against the trial.”
But do those saluting Mubarak and his entourage reflect a wider sentiment?
“I cannot abandon any Arab ruler that has been defamed,” said 55-year-old Cairo shop-owner, Salah El Din Badri. “Even if he is on trial now, he will always be the president of Egypt.”
Omnia Al Desoukie contributed reporting for this story from Cairo, Egypt