CAIRO: Hosni Mubarak, on trial for his life, is ferried to court by helicopter from a presidential hospital suite. His sons and co-defendants swagger in wearing designer track suits and no handcuffs. His security chief is treated with near reverence by police in the courtroom.
For activists in Egypt, the scenes only deepen their feeling that the authoritarian system the ousted president oversaw remains largely in place, almost a year since the 18-day uprising that toppled him.
When Mubarak’s trial began five months ago, many hoped it would bring not only punishment but a clear sense of victory for a movement that aimed to wipe the slate clean and start again.
Instead, it has boiled down to a bare-knuckled showdown between supporters and foes of the "revolution," reflecting the tensions that have been gripping the country.
Those divisions were clear in court Tuesday as Mubarak’s defense began its arguments. His chief lawyer, Farid El-Deeb, went for maximum effect with flowery language depicting him as an unjustly maligned victim who tried to improve Egypt during 29 years in power.
"This man before you, who is 83, has been fatigued and burdened by ailments and mauled by the malice of cunning people," El-Deeb said.
"He is looking to your justice to save him from the oppression that surrounds him from every direction, after his reputation and history have been targeted by tongues and pens."
The courtroom erupted when he said that Mubarak in fact supported the revolution. El-Deeb quoted from a letter he said Mubarak wrote to his lifetime friend Ahmed Shafik — who was prime minister at the time of the uprising — saying that protesters were exercising their right to stage peaceful protests but were infiltrated by criminals and Islamists who destroyed public property and challenged the regime’s "legitimacy."
"Lies, lies!" and "Execution for Mubarak!" screamed the lawyers representing the families of protesters killed by police during the revolution.
They rushed at El-Deeb and nearly set upon him, but court police quickly moved to keep them back.
Mubarak, who has worn an unwaveringly grim expression ever since the trial began on Aug. 3, looked content as El-Deeb praised him. For the first time in the trial, he sat in a wheelchair in the courtroom cage where the defendants are kept, rather than lying on a hospital gurney as he has in previous sessions.
Mubarak, his former security chief Habib El-Adly and four top security officers are charged with complicity in the killing of hundreds of protesters and could face the death penalty if convicted. Mubarak’s sons Alaa and Gamal, along with their father, are charged with corruption in the same trial, a crime that would carry a prison sentence.
But the near-melee over El-Deeb’s speech gave a peek into the issue running under the surface of the trial: what the revolution has really meant for Egypt.
That issue has polarized Egyptian politics since Mubarak’s Feb. 11 ouster and the takeover of the reins of power by army generals widely believed to be beholden to him, led by his loyal defense minister of 20 years, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi.
Many of the activists who engineered the anti-Mubarak protests see the generals as just an extension of their former patron’s regime with no interest in bringing significant change. Notably, the military only ordered the arrest of the former president and his two sons after mass protests demanding that they be brought to justice.
Activists also charge that the generals have methodically tried to divert attention away from the revolution’s main goals — freedom, democracy and social justice — and instead decreed a cumbersome transition, allowing Islamist parties to dominate the political landscape and missing what they see as a historic chance to become a truly democratic state.
At the same time, the generals have gone to great lengths to discredit protest leaders and capitalize on Egyptians’ longing for stability by demonizing the revolutionaries as foreign agents and troublemakers while projecting an image of themselves as the nation’s true patriots.
Activists, lawyers for the victims and some in the public see the soft treatment for the defendants as evidence that those in power still grant Mubarak and those around him the aura of prestige.
Police assigned to courthouse security have been captured on camera offering their former boss El-Adly a salute as he arrived for one of the early hearings. Those images caused an uproar, but El-Adly, who as interior minister commanded the intensely hated police force, continues to walk from the armored police vehicle that brings him from jail to the courtroom without escort or handcuffs. Dark sunglasses, a navy blue baseball cap and a matching prison uniform have become the iconic look of a man whose name once struck fear in the hearts of the regime’s foes.
Similarly, Mubarak’s sons parade boldly into the courthouse, with Alaa carrying a purple chair that he sits on when inside the defendants’ cage. Both Alaa and Gamal, who barely a year ago was thought to be Egypt’s second most powerful man after his father, wear immaculate white track suits with matching sneakers.
Two other security commanders face dereliction of duty charges in relation to the crackdown on protesters in the trial. A friend of the Mubarak family, Hussein Salem, who has fled the country, is also a defendant in the corruption component of the trial.
Activists grumble that the treatment contrasts with the use of deadly force by troops in recent months against peaceful protesters demanding that the generals step down immediately — as well as the use of cursory military tribunals to prosecute at least 12,000 civilians, including protesters, since the generals took over. Those rounded up over the months from Tahrir Square complained of being beaten, hit by clubs or shocked by stun guns while in police custody.
Late Tuesday, witnesses said thugs attacked them in the square, burning tents, apparently trying to clear it out ahead of the Jan. 25 anniversary of the beginning of the uprising. No casualties were reported.
The prosecution last week gave a startlingly harsh and dramatic denunciation of Mubarak in its courtroom summations, calling him a tyrant who maneuvered to get his son Gamal to succeed him.
Tuesday’s hearing was the first of five set aside by Judge Ahmed Rifaat to hear the defense argue its case. El-Deeb, who over the years built a reputation as a suave and expensive celebrity lawyer, sharply criticized the prosecution’s comments, saying it used phrases that "for no reason insulted Mubarak."
"Mubarak is neither a tyrant nor a bloodthirsty man. He respects the judiciary and its decisions, a clean man who could say no wrong," he said.
"Mubarak has seriously and faithfully worked to the best of his abilities and energy for Egypt and its people, lived a life burdened by his nation’s problems," he said. "For that, he is worthy of justice and no one should discredit his efforts, question his loyalty or history."
The victims’ lawyers were again enraged when Salwah Al-Soubi, a member of the defense team, chanted "Mubarak, we love you!" in addressing the ousted leader in the defendants’ cage.
"Sit down and shut up!" shouted some of the lawyers for the victims.
Outside the trial venue, some 300 hundred Mubarak supporters chanted slogans in support of the former president. They came close to fighting with about 100 relatives of the victims, but riot police intervened and separated the two camps.