Egypt army ruler testimony at Mubarak trial delayed

CAIRO Sun Sep 11, 2011 7:23am EDT

Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of Egypt's ruling military council, meets with visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in Cairo May 3, 2011. REUTERS/Pool/Xinhua/Cai Yang

Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of Egypt's ruling military council, meets with visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in Cairo May 3, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Pool/Xinhua/Cai Yang

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CAIRO (Reuters) - The head of Egypt's ruling army council postponed his appearance at the trial of ousted president Hosni Mubarak, saying he was busy with the security situation, media reported on Sunday days after a spike in anti-Israel violence.

Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi was due to testify behind closed doors on Sunday, under a complete news blackout.

The announcement of the delay to September 24 or 25 came after protesters stormed the Israeli embassy building in Cairo late on Friday, forcing Israel to fly its ambassador home.

Tantawi's testimony could be crucial in deciding if Mubarak is guilty or innocent of charges that include conspiring to kill protesters and inciting some officers to use live ammunition during a mass uprising.

Tantawi served for 20 years as Mubarak's defense minister before becoming head of the ruling military council on February 11 when the former president was ousted from office.

"As the former regime was a dictatorship, many of the important and political decisions were taken in secrecy and only among the state's top officials," said Nabil Abdel Fattah, political analyst at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

The move to bar the media has angered many Egyptians who have demanded a transparent trial. Images of the first two trial sessions were broadcast live. Cameras have since been barred but journalists attended other sessions.

"Field Marshal Tantawi apologized regarding attending the trial of Mubarak due to being busy with the security situation in the country," Al Arabiya TV reported, without giving details.

State television later confirmed he would not attend on Sunday and said his hearing and that of Armed Forces Chief of Staff Sami Enan would be on the September 24 and 25. It did not say who would attend on each date.

Thousands of activists demonstrated on Friday in Cairo's Tahrir Square, epicenter of the uprising, to push for a timetable for a transition to democracy.

Some demonstrators later converged on the Israeli embassy on the other bank of the Nile. They smashed a wall built by the authorities to protect the mission and stormed the building where the embassy is located, triggering a diplomatic crisis.

Some of the demonstrators at Tahrir Square had earlier taunted Tantawi over his testimony.

"Can you (Tantawi) tell the court on Sunday that he (Mubarak) did not order police to open fire?" said Mohamed, a 30-year-old driver who declined to give his full name.

Many opponents of Mubarak, who has attended each session lying on a stretcher after being hospitalized in April, have been frustrated by the slow pace and progress of the trial.

Mubarak, who was driven from office after three decades in power, is the first Arab leader to stand trial in person since unrest erupted across the Middle East this year.

Plaintiff lawyer Hassan Abou El Einein called the decision to summon Tantawi "a big surprise that will transform the case and take us into an entirely different field."

(Reporting by Sami Aboudi and Omar Fahmy; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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