Will Egypt's former ruler Mubarak ever face trial?

CAIRO Mon Apr 18, 2011 12:59pm EDT

Protesters holding posters of former president Hosni Mubarak chant slogans in support of Mubarak in downtown Cairo April 17, 2011. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

Protesters holding posters of former president Hosni Mubarak chant slogans in support of Mubarak in downtown Cairo April 17, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Youssef Boudlal

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CAIRO (Reuters) - An authoritarian leader is forced to resign after protests against his corruption-tainted rule. He is charged with graft and murder, but ill health stalls his interrogation. He dies before he is put on trial.

The fate of Indonesia's President Suharto, who died 10 years after mass demonstrations swept him from power in 1998, could be a scenario the generals now ruling Egypt are considering for deposed President Hosni Mubarak, 82 and ailing, who still wields considerable clout within the army.

Yet significant delays in putting Mubarak on trial risk a return of the mass demonstrations and chaos that swept him from power on February 11 and hammered Egypt's economy, analysts say.

The protests have largely died down, but normality has yet to return to a country central to stability in the Middle East.

"The military council has made it very clear from the very beginning that they would like Mubarak to be able to retire with dignity, and this could go on for a long time, like Suharto," said Elijah Zarwan, senior analyst at the Egypt office of the International Crisis Group, a policy advocacy organization.

"They're caught between their desire to maintain stability and their sense of duty to a respected commander-in-chief. The military are very reluctant to put him on trial, and this could go on for a very long time," he said.

The similarities between Mubarak and Suharto, who died aged 86, are striking.

Both hailed from the military, governed with an iron-fist for 30 years, oversaw free-market reforms that triggered an economic boom for some and then were tossed from power by a disenfranchised population weary of authoritarian rule.

Like Mubarak, Suharto was charged with corruption. But ill health, and his enduring appeal to many Indonesians, ensured he never stood trial. He died in 2008.

UNSPECIFIED ILLNESS

Bringing Mubarak to justice was one of the key demands of the pro-democracy protesters who deposed him. He was ordered detained for questioning last week by the interim military rulers, a step seen as appeasing demonstrators who may suspect they were shielding Mubarak from punishment.

But an unspecified illness -- state television said it was a heart crisis but medical sources now say he is in good health -- has stopped him returning to Cairo for questioning.

The former president remains in a hospital in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, a town he frequented during his presidency and to which he fled after his resignation.

Security sources say there are no plans so far to move him to a military hospital in the capital, despite an order by the prosecutor to do so, partly because Mubarak himself is refusing to be transferred.

Mubarak was an air force commander during Egypt's 1973 war against Israel and is seen by many in the military as a war hero who must be accorded respect.

"He's afraid that if he leaves Sharm el-Sheikh, this will be a step toward going to prison," state television quoted a security source as saying. "There are also disagreements on the security procedures for the transfer."

Another security source said the military was trying to give Mubarak time to get used to his dizzying descent from power. "Psychologically, the former president may struggle to come to terms with his fate," he said.

Mubarak is accused of abusing power, embezzling funds and of being responsible for the deaths of some protesters. Several members of his administration, and his two sons, are now in jail facing similar charges. Some have already been put on trial.

Mubarak has denied any wrongdoing, but many Egyptians see him as a repressive autocrat whose lengthy rule benefited only a few, while perpetuating the grinding poverty of the majority of the country's 80 million people.

Lawyers said it could take months before a case is built up against him and years before a verdict is issued.

"A trial on charges of embezzlement, profiteering and abuse of power could take up to 20 years. There are other charges too. It will be a long, drawn-out process," said lawyer Samir Sabry.

FAST, AND FAIR, TRIAL?

Mohammed Abdullah Khalil, a lawyer and human rights activist said the longer it takes to bring Mubarak to court, the less patience Egyptians will show the military rulers and the interim government it appointed.

"Mubarak chose to stay in Egypt. That means he's subject to the laws of the land," Khalil said. "But the prosecution and the military are procrastinating. The more time they take, the more likely Egyptians will return to the streets to demand justice."

Still, a hasty trial would raise questions about its fairness, analysts say, and any verdict could polarize society.

Egyptians' traditional respect for the elderly must also be taken into consideration if Mubarak is put on trial.

Many would like to see their ex-president in court, but many also feel sorry for a man who they say, despite all his faults, is 82 and frail.

"I'll be unhappy if he goes on trial. This man has also done some good things, he can't have done only bad things," said Iman Aboul Nagah, a 24-year-old accountant.

This sympathy may become more pronounced if Mubarak is allowed to defend himself, in public, widening his support base and creating a potential headache for the military and the elected civilian authorities due to take over later this year.

"Protesters need to balance their desire for justice with the risks of speedy trial -- it's a case of being careful for what they wish for," Zarwan said.

Egypt is due to hold parliamentary, and then presidential, elections later this year, creating a civilian leadership that would take over from the generals.

But the military, which has influenced Egyptian politics for decades is unlikely to relinquish control completely.

(Additional reporting by Marwa Awad and Yasmine Saleh, editing by Paul Taylor)

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