The sight of Hosni Mubarak, lying prostrate on a gurney inside a cage in a makeshift courtroom while his sons Alaa and Gamal stood dutifully by, electrified the Arab world Wednesday, raising the prospect that the ousted Egyptian dictator may soon be held accountable for his crimes.
Yet for all the palpable excitement over Mubarak's trial, as well as that of several other top regime figures like former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly, the chaotic scenes in the courtroom -- and the rock fight outside of it -- did not exactly inspire confidence in the Egyptian justice system. In one particularly bizarre moment, a lawyer speaking on behalf of Mubarak's victims claimed that the man in the cage was an imposter, and that the real president of Egypt died in 2004. At other points, Mubarak was caught on camera picking his nose. Dozens of lawyers on both sides crowded the bar and shouted their demands, forcing the judge to shut them up.
The trial, which will resume tomorrow for Adly and for the Mubaraks on Aug. 15, is being held under the military rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the junta that deposed Mubarak in February at the height of a popular street uprising demanding his ouster. Although the SCAF adamantly denies meddling in the civilian court system, its claims of neutrality are about to be put to the test: Mubarak's lawyer is demanding that Field Marshal Mohammed Tantawi, the defense minister who is now Egypt's de facto ruler, be called to the stand, along with former intelligence cheif Omar Suleiman, who briefly assumed the vice presidency during the 18 days of the revolution.
Interestingly, Mubarak's defense team claims that it was Tantawi who was technically the ruler of the country from Jan. 28 onward, meaning that the infamous Feb. 2 "Battle of the Camels" in Tahrir Square happened on the field marshal's watch. That strategy seems dubious, however, given that this legal status was never communicated at the time -- and it was not until Feb. 11 that Suleiman appeared on state television to announce that Mubarak had "resigned his position as president of the republic." [UPDATE: Al Jazeera's Evan Hill says that the defense is actually arguing that Tantawi was in charge of security, not that he was running the country.]
Still, it will be fascinating to see if Tantawi, Suleiman, and other senior figures like former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq will be dragged into the courtroom drama. The Egyptian regime was, and still very much is, a police state backed by the military. The circle of criminality and repression goes far wider than just a few dozen people. Mubarak isn't being tried for the 30 years of dictatorship, stagnation, and ruin he brought upon his country, but for the actions his subordinates took, allegedly under his orders, during the three weeks that brought him down. But there are no doubt many dark secrets that will come out during this trial, if the SCAF will allow it. Ironically, it might be the Big Man himself who, in trying to save his own neck and that of his sons, brings the rest of the system down with him.
Egyptian State TV