Mubarak's Trial Signals Egyptian Transition

Aug 6, 2011
Originally published on August 7, 2011 9:23 am



The trial of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak began this week in Cairo more than six months after the start of anti-government protests that ultimately proved to be his undoing. The ailing 83-year-old Mr. Mubarak was wheeled into court on a hospital bed. From behind the bars of a courtroom cage, he heard and denied charges of corruption and of authorizing the killing of protesters. NPR's Mike Shuster joins us from Cairo. Mike, thanks for being with us.

MIKE SHUSTER: Hi, Scott. Good to be with you.

SIMON: And here was this powerful image of a once powerful man but no longer in his Savile Row suits, but a prison uniform lying in a cage. How do Egyptians react to that?

SHUSTER: Well, I think at first people in Egypt across the board were just surprised. There were gasps in the courtroom when they wheeled him in on the hospital bed and they realized it was actually Hosni Mubarak. And by accounts that we have from talking to people myself and from talking to others who have - other reporters and the press here - it's quite clear that there was this audible gasp across the country when they realize that Hosni Mubarak, who had been the strong man in Egypt for 30 years had in effect fallen so far.

So the first reaction was surprise and I think initial reactions after that were mixed. But it's hard to find people who are defending Mubarak and it's very easy to find many people who want to see this trial through and want to see a verdict and a sentence carried out.

SIMON: He does have his supporters. I think we've all seen shots of some of his supporters staging demonstrations. Are there any feeling maybe even some people who don't defend him in the legal sense that dragging him into court and putting him into a cage was going over some kind of line?

SHUSTER: I think that there's some of that, Scott. And I think that there are people who would argue that Mubarak and his lawyer team are playing that, the frail old man now who has to come into court in a hospital bed. Why are they doing this to him? And I think that there is some sympathy in the Egyptian public for him on that basis.

There haven't been any polls taken as far as I know. There hasn't been a good test of public opinion. But it certainly feels like it there is that sympathy it's a much smaller fraction of the population than those who wanted to see him in the dock in the first place.

SIMON: Ramadan, of course, began this week, and I wonder what influence that might have on the trial.

SHUSTER: Actually I think it's probably enhancing a concentration of the public because everything slows down during Ramadan. The economy slows down. Work slows down. People stay home. People watch television. And so - and they stay indoors during the daytime so they're not in cafes and restaurants and shops. So a lot of people watch this at home. That gives them a chance to watch a lot of it, not just excerpts. And then after dark people go out to cafes and restaurants and there is quite a buzz all across Cairo about what they had seen on Wednesday when the trial opened. So I think that Ramadan is focusing people's attention on this trial perhaps a little bit more than they might have been without the holy month.

SIMON: Egypt, of course, is currently ruled by an interim government set up by the military. Parliamentary elections won't be held until November. So who holds this trial?

SHUSTER: Ultimately, a lot of people in Egypt believe that it's the military council that is the government of Egypt at the moment that made the key decision to go ahead with the trial and to hold the trial now. It could've been put off. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, led by a Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, it seems made the key decision to go ahead. What's interesting about that, Scott, is that he may be called as a witness. Tantawi was one of Mubarak's top generals and already Mubarak's lawyer had said that he will call Tantawi in Mubarak's defense. That should be very, very interesting.

SIMON: And finally, Mike, what kind of milestone is this trial for Egypt as they struggle toward democratic reform?

SHUSTER: A very big milestone certainly, but it's not the end of reform by any means. It's just the beginning. As you said earlier, there's still the process of electing a parliament, writing a constitution and then sometime next year electing a new president. So they've got a long way to go.

SIMON: NPR's Mike Shuster in Cairo. Thanks so much.

SHUSTER: You're welcome, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.