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Once an iron-fisted ruler, Hosni Mubarak goes on trial in an iron cage

Forced by his own army to step down from office in February, former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak has now been put on trial for his life in a lecture hall of the police academy that, until this week, bore his name.

" Effendum," or "Sir," he responded respectfully and humbly in a hoarse voice, "I am here." The 83-year-old lifted his arm from the hospital bed on which he lay inside the steel defendants' cage, when addressed by the presiding judge, as if the judge might not notice him otherwise.

How does he plead, Mr. Mubarak was asked, to a detailed list of major crimes? "I deny all the accusations," he said.

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A nervous country held its breath while those few words were uttered. They were the first words Mr. Mubarak had spoken in public since the speech he gave back in February insisting he would remain in office.

Many Egyptians were surprised then that he was pushed out a day later, and most everyone was astonished that he would be asked to answer such a question as was put to him by the court.

"The intention" of Mr. Mubarak, the country's new Attorney-General, Abdel Meguid Mahmoud, said when announcing the charges, "was to kill the largest number of protesters possible."

If anyone had spoken that way of Mr. Mubarak while he still was president, they'd have found themselves bundled off to prison, joining the many who disappeared during the Mubarak years or who faced great torture.

Instead, the man who ruled for 29 years with an iron fist was forced to reply meekly from an iron cage.

Throughout the defendants' three hours in court Wednesday, Mr. Mubarak's two sons, Gamal and Alaa, tended gently to their father. In their white prison suits, each clutching a green Koran, they appeared more as nurses in a religious hospital than co-defendants on trial for murder and corruption. After weeks of reports that he was in a coma, unable to speak and refusing to eat, Mr. Mubarak looked less frail than many had imagined.

The sons shielded their elderly father from lights and cameras, and stood between him and the other prisoners. At one point, Alaa bent over and kissed his father.

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The scene of filial piety seemed to upset one of the prosecuting lawyers, so much so that he shouted at the former president that he was not really Mr. Mubarak, but an imposter. Mr. Mubarak had died in 2004, he insisted, and this look-alike was continuing to rule for the benefit of the Mubarak family.

Gamal Mubarak, the younger of the two sons, might well have looked sheepish. It was he who ushered in a massive program of economic liberalization, and then oversaw its benefits flowing largely to a new class of wealthy businessmen. Little trickled down to the Egyptian people, 50 per cent of whom live below the poverty line.

That fact alone induced many Egyptians to join this year's protests. Others came because they resented the idea that this same man was being groomed for the presidency, a resentment shared by the country's military leadership that has chosen the past three presidents.

But for the greed of the younger Mr. Mubarak, things might not have turned out as they did Wednesday.

And but for the president's decision in February to refuse to negotiate a quiet departure from office, Hosni Mubarak might have been spared all this.

"In Egypt we have always had this culture of the omnipotent leader," said Hani Naguib, executive manager of Egypt's Social Democratic Party (SDP), referring to the lineage of leaders from the pharaohs to the sultans to the army officers. "That all changed today."

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"Future leaders may think twice before committing misdeeds," he said.

Indeed, the start of this historic, improbable trial signals the final act of the Mubarak era, and the beginning of a new age.

"None of us ever imagined a trial such as this," said Mr. Naguib, a 38-year-old father of two who has taken leave from his position in the stock exchange to run the SDP full time. "On Jan. 26 [the day after the killing of the first protesters] we would have been happy just to see the interior minister resign."

Six months later, that minister, Habib Ibrahim al-Adly, also is on trial for his life along with six of his police aides and his boss.

To be sure, there are millions of Egyptians who think an elderly former war hero such as Mr. Mubarak should not be treated the way he has been the past few months. These are the people who fondly referred to Mr. Mubarak as "the fourth great pyramid," a rock of solidity that the country counted on.

But there are millions more who suffered enough at the hands of his henchmen to want to see him face justice.

Hisham Kassem sat back in quiet pleasure as he watched Egypt's state television focus closely on the face of the ousted leader behind bars.

For 20 years, Mr. Kassem has been taking the fight to Mr. Mubarak: first as chairman of the Egyptian Organization of Human Rights, the country's first such organization for the protection of civil liberties; then as vice-president of the liberal el-Ghad party whose leader, Ayman Nour, was the only candidate ever to run for the presidency against Mr. Mubarak, and also as founding publisher of Al-Masry al-Youm, Egypt's first fully independent newspaper.

For his efforts, Mr. Kassem was vilified by the regime, and praised in the West. In 2007, he was received in the Oval Office by George W. Bush, when he was given the Democracy Award, presented each year by the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy to a small number of fighters for freedom, people that have included Vaclav Havel and Wei Jingsheng.

The award made him an even greater enemy of the Mubarak regime but, at the same time, provided him greater protection.

"I'm trying very hard not to let this be about revenge," he said, referring to how he felt about the historic Mubarak trial. "But, I must admit, when I look at him there behind the bars of that cage, I can't help but think it's a triumph."

Mr. Kassem dismisses the idea that Mr. Mubarak should be cut be cut a little slack because of his advanced years and sorry health.

I think he's feigning ill health," he said. "I only hope he has enough sense of dignity to appear in court next time in a wheelchair, if not standing up."

"Even Saddam took it standing up," he said, referring to the late Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, who was tried and executed.

"Does he really want to go out this way: 'not with a bang but a whimper'?"

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