Curse of the Mubarak Trial: A Pestilence of Lawyers

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An image grab taken from Egyptian state TV shows ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak lying on a stretcher inside a cell at a courtroom in Cairo on Aug. 15, 2011

Judge Ahmed Refaat was clearly not happy. He spent much of the court hearing Monday, Aug. 15, in the trial of ex-President Hosni Mubarak trying to get the lawyers to behave themselves. "Please go back to your seats," he told a jostling crowd of men in suits just minutes into the hearing. Several of the roughly 100 plaintiff lawyers in attendance were already hoarse from shouting at one another before the proceedings began. Refaat said the disorder was preventing the court from holding a speedier trial.

After three hours of court time that seemed to accomplish little, Refaat adjourned the hearings until Sept. 5. At that point, the trial for Mubarak and his two sons will be merged — for the second time — with the trial for former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly and six officers. And from now on, Refaat declared, the case will not be televised.

That last decision alone may deliver a sizable blow to postrevolutionary Egypt's quest for justice. Millions of Egyptians watched the first trial of their deposed leader with the rapt attention of soap-opera viewers. Many of the young activists who held forth for months in protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square calling for speedier trials for the former regime claimed to have scored a victory when the 83-year-old Mubarak first appeared in the defendants' cage on Aug. 3.

But analysts say it may be time for a reality check. "What it means is, 'Look, you've asked for the trial to be in public, and we've sort of agreed to do that. But now we've done it, and you should be happy with it,' " says Walid Kazziha, a political-science professor at the American University in Cairo, attempting to channel the thinking of the country's current military leadership under Mubarak's former Defense Minister Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. "I don't think the Egyptian public will be happy with that. And I think we will see a lot of criticisms leveled — if not against the judge, then against the established authorities like the military council."

Others say removing the cameras will help remove some unnecessary drama from what has become Egypt's biggest national spectacle in decades. Well before Mubarak and his sons Alaa and Gamal arrived in the courtroom on Monday, dozens of lawyers were already pressed against the railing at the front of the court, cursing at one another and waving papers. The trial, which adjourned its second session that day, has so far been staged during the holy month of Ramadan, which means that most of those appearing in court are fasting — and particularly cranky or famished from lack of food and water. By 10 a.m., some of the screaming lawyers were red in the face. Others appeared to be asleep, slumped over the wooden benches.

Outside the police academy on Cairo's outskirts, where the trial is being held, violent clashes raged between Mubarak defenders and those supporting the revolution, none of whom appeared to be paying much attention to the giant public screen. By 10:30 a.m., the judge managed only to get those in the court room to sit down and to complete the roll call. "Present," Mubarak and each of his sons answered.

Some of the lawyers said they had more demands — ranging from procedural requests to complaints about access to evidence — even after the first hearing was devoted almost entirely to hearing lawyers' demands. As proceedings began, one attorney told the court he had prepared a list of all the lawyers' names so that the court could call on them one by one to state their demands. The judge agreed that would be a good idea.

"This number of lawyers jockeying for position in front of the bench and behaving in such an unruly manner is unprecedented," explains Hisham Kassem, a prominent opposition media mogul. "Maybe it's for the best to stop the TV coverage — the judge didn't say media coverage — to put an end to some of the lawyers who are basically staring at the TV cameras and then turning around to make a statement. The bulk of the lawyers for the civil plaintiffs are performing."

The day before, Refaat had adjourned the trial of al-Adly and six of his officers out of frustration with similar chaos. So on Monday, Refaat insisted on silence before presenting the court with unspecified evidence consisting of several tall stacks of paper bound with twine, a few CDs and a flash drive.

Both Mubarak and al-Adly could face the death penalty if convicted of ordering violence against protesters during the winter uprising. They also face corruption charges, as do the President's sons. Despite the gravity of the charges, Mubarak, who had an IV in his hand, appeared to be dozing at times. As the court session closed, Gamal and Alaa waved to the crowd, and some activists claimed Gamal had even flashed a V (for victory) sign.

Indeed, it may be a while before the Egyptian public gets to hear a verdict. Defense attorneys and lawyers representing victims of the February uprising have together requested some 1,600 witnesses — none of whom have taken the stand.

"The name of the game is to delay as much as possible," says Kazziha with a bitter laugh. "There is a side of this trial which is a joke. I mean, young people are being tried in military courts in a matter of minutes, and very severe sentences are meted out to them," he says, referring to the more than 10,000 civilians who have been tried in military courts since Mubarak's ousting. "And then the regime, which has really made a mess of society — almost turned it into a failed society — is treated with velvet gloves," he adds. "Mubarak's regime has been undermined, but it has not been eliminated. And I think Egypt will need to have another revolution before that regime is completely eliminated."

— With reporting by Amer Shakhatreh / Cairo