Millions of television viewers in the Arab world reportedly watched the spectacle of a dethroned 83-year-old dictator answering for alleged crimes against his people.
Other Arab authoritarians had faced justice before. But the Aug. 3 court hearing was the first time that a popular uprising in a Muslim country led to a former ruler being put on trial. The image of a caged and ailing Hosni Mubarak caused many to ponder the reaction of other regional autocrats, as the Arab Spring continues to rock North Africa and the Middle East.
Before the revolution toppled Mubarak in February, he successfully suppressed opposition and ruled Egypt for three decades. But it was a humbled former dictator, rolled into the courtroom in a hospital bed, who answered to allegations of corruption and conspiracy to kill protesters.
According to the more serious of the two charges, Mubarak either ordered or was complicit in the killing of 850 protestors during the revolt. He now faces the death penalty if found guilty of that charge.
From a cage in the courtroom—with his sons who are also on trial—a defiant Mubarak told the judge he is not guilty of the charges.
Reporters at the trial described a tumultuous scene outside the court building. There was doubt as to whether Mubarak would appear in court. His defense team claimed he was seriously ill and being treated for a heart condition. But once he arrived, opponents of the ex-president shouted down his supporters, as they gathered outside the courthouse to observe the proceedings on television. Scuffles and rock throwing between the two groups also erupted, according to reports.
In a comment to the press regarding the trial, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said, “Obviously, we want to see the rule of law.” She called for the “appropriate due process and procedures” in the “highly charged” trial.
A New York Times report states that a three-judge panel will decided Mubarak’s guilt or innocence. For prosecutors to win a guilty verdict, the presiding chief judge and at least one of the other two judges must agree.
“The chief judge promised speedy proceedings,” the Times reported, “though no one seemed to know whether that meant weeks, months or longer.” In the meantime, the trial continues on Aug. 15.
Many fear that other regional authoritarians will take away the wrong lesson from the Mubarak trial. Rather than reform or step down, they will likely use any means to avoid being in Mubarak’s position.
Indeed, on the first day of Mubarak’s trial, troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria attacked and killed protestors who were demanding reform. And Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya, refusing to step down, continues to defy NATO bombs and to fight rebels in his bid to stay in power.