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Judge Ahmed Rifaat, center-left, who will try Egypt's ousted leader Hosni Mubarak, speaks to the media as an Egyptian policeman stands guard in the foreground, at a press conference held at the High Court in downtown Cairo, July 31, 2011. (Nasser Nasser/AP/Nasser Nasser/AP)
Judge Ahmed Rifaat, center-left, who will try Egypt's ousted leader Hosni Mubarak, speaks to the media as an Egyptian policeman stands guard in the foreground, at a press conference held at the High Court in downtown Cairo, July 31, 2011. (Nasser Nasser/AP/Nasser Nasser/AP)

Patrick Martin

The people versus Egypt's Hosni Mubarak Add to ...

When 83-year-old Hosni Mubarak is walked - or wheeled - into a makeshift Cairo courtroom Wednesday, an entire nation will be mesmerized. Few had ever imagined a day would come when the once all-powerful president of Egypt would be held to account for some of his misdeeds.

But the rush to trial, just six months after the popular uprising that led to his ouster, has limited the charges the prosecution is arguing. And lumping the man's case together with those of several others means there's a very good chance the once-revered and now-hated former head of state will get off lightly, if not Scot-free.

The Accused

Hosni Mubarak, president of Egypt from 1981 to 2011, along with his two sons, Alaa and Gamal.

Mr. Mubarak will be flown by helicopter from his hospital room in Sharm el Sheikh to the heliport of the national police academy outside Cairo where the trial will be held.

A bed has been put inside the steel cage that will hold all the prisoners inside the courtroom so the former president can lie down during the proceedings.

Also on trial: Habib el-Adly, interior minister of Egypt from 1997-2011, along with six of his aides.

Mr. el-Adly, who has already been convicted for corruption in two other trials since being dismissed in February, graduated from the police academy (at a different location) that now will host this trial.

Hussein Salem, an Egyptian business tycoon, is also being charged, but Mr. Salem remains in Spain where he is under arrest pending the outcome of an extradition hearing.

The Charges

Mr. Mubarak and most of the other defendants are accused of conspiring to kill demonstrators during the popular uprising between Jan. 25 and Feb. 11.

A state-appointed fact-finding mission determined that more than 800 protesters were killed during the uprising and that Mr. Mubarak was ultimately responsible, since it was his interior minister, Mr. el-Adly, who ordered security forces to use live ammunition.

A conviction carries a possible death penalty.

The Mubaraks and Mr. Salem are also charged with a kickback scheme in which the Mubaraks received luxury villas in the Sinai resort of Sharm el Sheikh, while Mr. Salem received a flow of natural gas at below-market prices, then sold the gas to Israel for a profit of $714-million.

The Leftovers

Given the systemic corruption and extensive police brutality that typified the Mubarak years, the charges in this trial seem small in comparison.

Indeed, Saddam Hussein, the late Iraqi dictator, once said of Hosni Mubarak that the then-Egyptian president was "like a pay phone: You put the money in and you get what you want in return."

Many Egyptians are disappointed that such matters as the looting of funds from the national pension plan, the channelling of fees from the lucrative Suez Canal through the president's office, and other massive corruption matters totalling an estimated $60-billion are not included. Others resent the absence of anything to do with the thousands of cases of imprisonment without trial, torture and disappearances that occurred during the three Mubarak decades.

Building more extensive cases would have taken a lot longer, explained Sally Sami, one of the original bloggers who initially called for the uprising, and who has been pressuring the current caretaker government and the powerful Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to take speedy court action.

"There simply is no trust in the justice system to carry things out in the long term," she said.

With popular support for the uprising already waning, "it was now or never," Ms. Sami said.

The Hitch

Even those crimes being prosecuted this week will be difficult to connect to the former president.

"There's not likely to be a paper trail," said Cairo lawyer Karim Azmi, referring to the suggestion that specific orders were given to use live ammunition against the protesters.

As for charges that stem from the killing of protesters who attacked police stations in cities such as Suez, "self defence won't be hard to establish," Mr. Azmi said.

Ironically, it might have been easier to establish connections in some of Egypt's many cases of torture. As John Bradley, author of Inside Egypt notes, the country's torturers are sticklers for following the law. Although the country is a signatory of international conventions against torture, it exempts from prosecution the practice of torture in national security cases. The trick is to have the matter referred to the Supreme Military Prosecutor, a referral that usually requires a presidential directive, something that does have a paper trail.

Even the matter of having multiple defendants may make it easier for Mr. Mubarak to walk.

"The purpose of combining several trials together is to horse trade," said Egyptian playwright Karim Alrawi, who has worked on investigations into corruption for the World Bank. "Give some of the others harsh sentences and go more gently on Mubarak," he explained.

"That way the rage of the public is absorbed with maybe a death sentence or two of high ranking officials and a prison sentence for Mubarak that he can spend in a military hospital."

The most likely candidate for execution, observers say, is Mr. el-Adly, the former interior minister. "No one expects him to get away with anything," said Mr. Azmi.

The Hope

For most Egyptians, the hope is that this trial will be about teaching lessons.

"For me it's not about how much money Mubarak took," said Ms. Sami, now a founding member of Egypt's new Social Democratic Party. "It's about learning what went wrong in the old regime, and how to avoid it happening in a new government."

For others, the lesson is more primal. "I understand the Egyptian culture's need for 'justice' to be carried out," Ms. Sami said. "Conviction and punishment sends an important signal to future officials."

Many people are hoping the punishment will be a capital one, she acknowledged.

"These people are accused of very serious crimes. Human rights violations cannot be forgiven."

The Fear

"My big fear," said Ms. Sami, "is that Mubarak will get off lightly and never have to appear again."

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