The Dictator in His Cage: Hosni Mubarak Goes on Trial in Egypt

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Debbie Hill / UPI / Landov

Former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak lies on a stretcher as he listens to the opening proceedings of his trial in the court on the outskirts of the capital Cairo, August 3, 2011.

For many of the Egyptians who participated in the uprising that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak in February, there was something cathartic about seeing him in a cage. "For a long time, we have been dreaming of such a day," said Ahmed Maher, the leader of the 6th of April Youth Movement. "Today is a historic day. After this trial, any future president of Egypt will think a thousand times before committing any injustice against the Egyptians. And any interior minister or police officer will think a thousand times before torturing or imprisoning a political activist."

On Wednesday morning, Hosni Mubarak went on trial on charges of corruption and ordering the killing of protesters during the uprising that altered Egypt's political landscape. The 83-year-old, who is suffering from cancer, was wheeled on a gurney into the cage — the kind of enclosure all defendants are typically held during Egyptian court sessions. He stroked his chin and occasionally picked his nose as prosecutors read out his charges and descriptions of the unarmed protesters he is accused of killing. His sons Alaa and Gamal, both on trial for corruption charges, stood beside him, holding copies of the holy Koran. Along with them were former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly, along with six of his high-ranking officers, who faced their own prosecutions as well.

Screened live on state television on the third day of the holy month Ramadan — known, among other things, for its dramatic holiday soap operas — Wednesday's courtroom scene topped most expectations for both holiday and judicial drama.

Up until the minute that Mubarak appeared on the screen, many Egyptians believed the event just wouldn't happen. "How can I ever trust them to bring me justice if they treat me without dignity," asked activist Marwa Nasser, the day before, after Egyptian security forces raided Cairo's Tahrir Square and shut-down a three-week old sit-in calling for faster reforms. "It's just going to be a lame TV show. I think they'll just let us see him, and then they'll postpone the trial for health reasons again, for maybe a few months until he dies."

In the early morning hours before the trial began, scores of journalists, victims' families, as well as the lawyers claiming to represent them, screamed at military police guarding the court's entrance in an effort to gain access. Many were shut out, leaving rows of empty seating inside the court.

In a lot outside the Police Academy, where the trial was held, Mubarak supporters clashed intermittently with trial supporters; both sides hurling rocks and glass bottles at each other, as hundreds of police looked on. One man from the pro-Mubarak camp chased another, holding a brick-sized rock, before hurling it at the latter's head. Some police officers beat protesters, and formed minimally effective cordons. Others retreated in panic when their colleagues were wounded. Asked why more of an intervention wasn't taking place, one officer shrugged: "Who would we hit? Both sides are Egyptian."

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