In the most significant trial since the start of the Arab Spring, an Egyptian court will decide this weekend whether former dictator Hosni Mubarak is guilty of ordering police to open fire on demonstrators during protests that led to his ouster last year.
A guilty verdict could carry the death penalty, a sentence that could reverberate across the region and send a warning to other dictators, including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Among Arab leaders toppled in the past 18 months, Mubarak is the only one who stayed behind after his fall from power and appeared at his own trial.
Though Mubarak is widely loathed in Egypt, analysts say they expect a much more lenient punishment, raising the specter of fresh protests by Egyptians, many of whom already feel that the gains of their revolution are slipping.
The three-judge panel will also rule on corruption charges against Mubarak, his two sons and a bevy of aides in a trial that has been marked by disarray, secret testimony and a sudden decision last January to cut the proceedings short and move to closing arguments. Human-rights groups have already raised doubts about its fairness.
“I would say [the punishment] would be symbolic more than real,” says Ahmed Kamal Aboulmagd, a high-profile lawyer and the former vice president of the Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights. “Execution is not in the mood of Egyptians. We’re not the Iraqis.”
The trial got underway last August, seven months after the protests in Cairo and across the country forced an end to decades of one-man rule in Egypt. At least 800 people were killed during the 18 days of demonstrations, mostly by police and other security agencies. Some of the policemen have since been indicted for their heavy-handed response.
Egyptians were initially captivated by the trial, especially footage from the first hearing last August, when Mubarak was rolled into the courtroom on a bed and listened to proceedings from a caged-off defendant’s box. But technical procedures soon delayed the process, including a drawn-out motion to dismiss one of the judges. Like the presidential election currently underway in the country, the trial has failed to meet the huge expectations many Egyptians had after the revolution.
The case hinges on whether Mubarak expressly ordered his law enforcement agencies to fire on the demonstrators. The former president denies it, but regime insiders have said such an order could only come from the top. The evidence entered in the trial includes taped conversations between Mubarak and his top lieutenants during 18 days of protests, but they have not been detailed publicly.
Among the corruption charges, Mubarak is suspected of improperly authorizing a natural-gas deal with Israel at below-market prices and accepting a bribe in exchange for helping a land developer.
How the Mubaraks have coped over the past 16 months remains largely unknown. Few friends and relatives are in direct contact with the family, and no public statements have been issued on their behalf in more than a year. Several sources generally familiar with their situation painted a picture for The Daily Beast that was not exactly cheerful—but not as grim as one might possibly expect.
Hosni Mubarak remains hospitalized at one of the most luxurious medical facilities in Egypt, a plush complex of glass and concrete buildings about an hour east of Cairo erected in part with American money. Mubarak’s wife, Suzanne, spends most of her time at the hospital, sleeping at an on-site hotel, the sources said. One of them described her as “all right but deeply depressed.”
Their two sons, Gamal and Alaa, are held at Tora prison, where opponents of the old regime were once incarcerated. But the sources said the two enjoy relatively good conditions, including a television and refrigerator in their cells and regular courtyard breaks where they can play basketball and volleyball. The brothers are allowed to use their own money to order food from restaurants outside the prison, according to the sources.
“I heard that they are treated well,” says Amin Mubarak, a member of the extended family and a former lawmaker from Mubarak’s National Democratic Party.
In a conversation recently at his home in El Shorouk City, Amin said Mubarak still feels he did nothing wrong during his nearly three decades in power.
“I believe that President Mubarak feels that he has done good for his country and that he doesn’t deserve this.”
He said that Mubarak’s mistake was to surround himself with corrupt aides but that he himself was “a good person”—a line commonly heard these days among defenders of the old regime.
“Personally he was trying to be fair. And he’s a modest person. But later on, with his son coming back from England and his wife so long in power, things changed.”
Though he never said so publicly, Mubarak was thought to be grooming his younger son, Gamal, to take over as president. The idea angered not only many Egyptians, but also top officers in the military, an institution from which Mubarak rose and later relied on for his political survival.
When the military refused to disperse the protesters, Mubarak had little choice but to step down. But one enduring question remains: once his resignation was inevitable, why didn’t he and his family flee Egypt, following the precedent set by Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali weeks prior?
“He was still counting on what he thought he did for the country and he felt it would be a bad finale to leave,” said Aboulmagd, the attorney, who had contact with the Mubaraks during their final days in power.
“He’s stubborn, very very stubborn. He doesn’t follow advice. I’m sure some people advised him to leave.”