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.

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Inside the courtroom, a cluster of civil prosecutors representing victims' families requested witnesses and evidence; they called for victims' compensation and listed their demands for the upcoming proceedings. One lawyer loudly alleged that Mubarak had been assassinated in 2004, and that the man in the cage was an imposter. He called for a DNA test before the judge cut him off: "What does what you're saying have anything to do with the trial?"

Indeed, Egypt's first major attempt at post-revolution justice was far from perfect. Yet, the trial of the former dictator, who ruled Egypt for 30 years, has been widely heralded as a test of Egypt's nascent democracy, a first opportunity for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the core of a transitional government consisting largely of old faces, to prove that it is ready to turn over a new leaf. If convicted, Mubarak and his former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly could face the death penalty.

As proceedings concluded on Wednesday afternoon, set to resume on Aug. 15 (Adly's continues on Thursday), many activists gave the trial an enthusiastic nod of approval. "The best moment was when they entered the cage, especially Hassan Abdel Rahman, head of national security, and Ismail al-Shaar, head of Cairo security," said Maher. "They committed so much torture. And in the past, they thought of themselves like gods. Now they're just like everybody else."

The trial may also lend new, and badly needed legitimacy to Egypt's youth protest movement, which has seen its popularity wane. The Sixth of April Youth Movement, hailed months ago as heroes of the revolution, has been vilified in recent weeks by the country's military leaders, who accuse them of accepting foreign funding and following a foreign agenda. Youth activists also took a blow on Monday after the military and police dismantled their sit-in in Tahrir Square to the applause and cheers of many local residents and shopkeepers. Entering its fourth week on the first day of Ramadan, the number of protesters had shrunk to only a few hundred of "mostly independents," according to Maher. Some residents chanted "We don't want you!" at the protesters as they retreated.

Some activists admitted that it may be time to re-think a strategy that had come to revolve entirely around Tahrir sit-ins and demonstrations, which many Egyptians say are damaging the economy and scaring away tourists. "It's completely the opposite of how we started on January 25th when they were clapping for us and encouraging us to keep going," says Marwa Nasser. "Now we need to start all over again — but start from small villages and towns, and talk to people face to face. The revolution has fizzled, so it won't take just a few months, maybe longer."

Nevertheless, the first day of the trial brought a revival of spirits. "The trial occurred as the result of pressure by the protesters on the SCAF," says Maher, echoing many other youth leaders. "It all started with sit-ins in Tahrir. So we'll monitor the whole thing, and if necessary, we'll go back to Tahrir."

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