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EGYPT: Mubarak Trial Another Win for Tahrir Protesters

Analysis by Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani

CAIRO, Aug 9 2011 (IPS) - Egyptians watched with rapt attention as deposed president Hosni Mubarak was hauled before court on live television to answer charges of corruption and murder. The move appears to have restored public confidence in Egypt’s ruling military council, which has governed the country since Mubarak’s February ouster.

Since the first week of July, protesters had returned en masse to Cairo’s Tahrir Square to register their displeasure with the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) and its slow implementation of revolutionary demands. Along with the prosecution of Mubarak and his associates, demonstrators demanded a “purge” of all remnants of the former regime from state institutions and an immediate halt to the practice of referring civilian protesters to military tribunals.

In a worrying precedent on Aug. 1, military police and Central Security personnel forcibly broke up the protests in scenes reminiscent of the Tahrir uprising. Over the next few days – with the square cordoned off by armoured vehicles – all remaining demonstrators were forcibly cleared from the area.

“The Mubarak trial has done much to restore protesters’ faith in the SCAF,” Abdel Rahman Abu Zaid, founding member of the leftist-oriented Egyptian People’s Party (as yet unlicensed), told IPS. “But the use of force against peaceful protesters is absolutely unacceptable in post-revolutionary Egypt.”

Many protesters contend that the long-awaited trial never would have materialised without the intense popular pressure that manifested itself in Tahrir Square.

“Mubarak’s debut in court is directly attributable to the million-man demonstration on Jul. 8 and the open-ended sit-in that followed it,” Moustafa Abdel Moneim, general coordinator of the youth-oriented Bediya (‘Beginning’) revolutionary movement, told IPS.

“The court appearance was a historical achievement,” Abdel Ghani Hindi, general coordinator of the Popular Movement for the Independence of Al-Azhar, told IPS. “It stands as a warning to all future leaders of Egypt – and all dictators throughout the world – that no one can persecute their people with impunity.”

On Aug. 3, Mubarak – lying prone on a hospital stretcher – appeared in a Cairo criminal court where he denied accusations of abuses of power, including the unlawful killing of peaceful protesters during Egypt’s recent Tahrir uprising. “I categorically deny all the charges,” the 83-year-old former president said from inside the caged dock.

More than 800 people were killed over the course of the 18-day uprising that eventually led to the departure of Mubarak, who could face the death penalty if found guilty.

Aired live on Egyptian state television, it was Mubarak’s first public appearance since his removal from power. The deposed leader appeared alongside his two sons, Alaa and Gamal, who likewise pled not guilty to corruption charges.

In the same court session, former interior minister Habib al-Adli and six senior police officers – also charged with ordering the killing of protesters – entered pleas of not guilty.

“This day will go down in history,” Ahmed Maher, general coordinator of the 6 April protest movement, told IPS. “The long-awaited sight of Mubarak and al-Adli in front of a judge leads me to believe that the martyrs of the revolution – and all those tortured and killed during the Mubarak era – will at last be avenged.”

The next hearing in what Egyptians are calling “the trial of the century” has been set for Aug. 15.

Ayman Salamma, international law professor at Cairo University, described Mubarak’s appearance in the steel-meshed defendant’s cage as “a watershed for Egypt and the Arab world.”

“This is the first time in modern history for a head of state to be tried by the people in a conventional court,” Salaama told IPS, noting that the trial of overthrown Iraqi president Saddam Hussein – which culminated in the latter’s alleged execution in 2006 – “was conducted not by the Iraqi public but by an occupying power.”

Most importantly, Mubarak’s court appearance appears to have eased mounting fears among many political activists that the ruling SCAF was deliberately delaying the implementation of key revolutionary demands – Mubarak’s prosecution being at the top of the list.

“Activists from across the political spectrum, all of whom had demanded speedy trials for anyone involved in killing protesters, were greatly relieved by Mubarak’s appearance in court,” Ibrahim Mansour, editor-in-chief of recently-launched independent daily Al-Tahrir, told IPS.

“By finally launching Mubarak’s trial, the SCAF has shown its good faith; shown that it is not in cahoots with elements of the former regime – as some had begun to fear – and is in fact prepared to comply with the people’s demands,” said Hindi.

Legal experts, meanwhile, believe the elder Mubarak will be found guilty of the most serious charges levelled against him, including that of ordering security forces to open fire on anti-government demonstrators.

“The absence of documented evidence that he ordered the killing of protesters will not be enough to establish his innocence,” prominent Cairo University law professor Atef al-Banna told IPS. “The mere fact that he didn’t issue specific orders not to shoot protesters will testify to his guilt.”

According to Mansour, the ongoing trial is likely to dampen calls for renewed Tahrir Square protests – at least for the time being.

“If the trial is conducted seriously and held on schedule, I doubt we’ll see anymore Tahrir Square sit-ins in the short term,” he said. “Although we might see sporadic demonstrations and marches held to protest the slow implementation of other revolutionary demands.”

“Mubarak’s prosecution is a very positive, if belated, step,” agreed Maher. “But state institutions must still be purged of all vestiges of the former regime, while other former regime officials implicated in criminal activity must also be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

While the elder Mubarak’s pitiful appearance on a hospital stretcher may have elicited sympathy from some viewers, Abdel Moneim, for his part, stressed: “Egyptians will never forget the crimes he committed – including random arrests and the widespread use of torture – throughout the course of his 30-year rule.”

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