CAIRO Hosni Mubarak was ordered on Tuesday to stand trial for the killing of protesters and could face the death penalty, scotching speculation the former leader would be spared public humiliation by Egypt's military rulers.
Mubarak, ousted on February 11 after mass demonstrations demanding he end his 30 years in power, has been questioned for his role in a crackdown that led to the killing of more than 800 demonstrators and has been probed over corruption.
The public prosecutor said Mubarak, who is detained in a hospital in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, would be tried on charges including "pre-meditated killing", which could be punished by the death penalty.
What happens in Egypt, the Arab world's most populous nation, will reverberate across a region which has been rocked by similar protests and unrest. Trying Mubarak on such charges may deter other leaders from quitting, analysts say.
Mubarak's two sons Alaa and Gamal, who many had believed was being groomed for office, were also referred to the criminal court on the same charges, the prosecutor said in a statement.
The decision was announced days before another planned demonstration in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the heart of the uprising. Activists had called for a big turnout on Friday to demand faster reforms and a public trial for Mubarak and others.
"Every time the youth threaten to go to Tahrir Square again with a huge number of protesters, I think they make some concessions," said Hassan Nafaa, political scientist and long-time Mubarak critic, who said protesters would still rally.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the most organized political group, said the decision was expected.
"We were only wondering why it took so long before that to happen," said the Brotherhood's Abdel Moneim Abdel-Maksoud.
On Facebook, Mahmoud Dahab wrote: "Mubarak has been referred to trial because Friday is approaching. We understand this game already".
With Mubarak still in hospital rather than prison, many Egyptians had speculated that the military rulers now in charge were protecting one of their own. Mubarak was a decorated air force commander before becoming president.
The army has denied such talk and insist the case of the president and his family was in the hands of the judiciary.
The crimes listed by the prosecutor included "intentional murder, attempted killing of some demonstrators ... misuse of influence and deliberately wasting public funds and unlawfully making private financial gains and profits," the statement said.
It said Mubarak was accused of "participating with Habib al-Adli, the former interior minister and some police authorities, ... in committing pre-meditated murder of some of the participants of peaceful protests across the country."
Judge Ahmed Mekky, the deputy head of Egypt's appeal court, told Reuters the prosecution could request the death penalty.
"If those crimes were proven on the former president he could face the penalty the law has for such crimes, which includes the death penalty," he said.
Mubarak fell ill and went to the hospital in Sharm el-Sheikh when he was first questioned in April. A medical source said on Tuesday that his condition was stable but he could not be moved to a Cairo prison hospital as it was not equipped to treat him.
Egypt's revolt followed one in Tunisia, where another long-time president quit but, unlike Mubarak, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia. Protesters have hit the streets of Libya, Syria and Yemen but their leaders have held on.
"A lot of the regimes -- Syria, Libya, and even Yemen -- are looking carefully at the example of Tunisia and Egypt to see what has happened," said analyst Sara Hassan.
"They wouldn't like to see themselves face a similar fate to that of the Mubarak family," she added. "I think they will be more intent on hanging on, despite the costs."
Protesters in Egypt faced live ammunition, rubber bullets, water cannon and batons during 18-days of demonstrations before Mubarak quit. Many welcomed his referral to trial.
"The verdict is a good thing but it came late. We would have liked it better if it came earlier. We should not be forced to call for big protests in order for the army council to listen to our demands and act," said Mohammed Adel, member of April 6 Youth Movement, which helped rally protesters.
The prosecutor's move was also praised by Ibrahim Zahran, 68, one of the founding members of the Egyptian Liberation Party, one of the many new parties that have sprung up since Mubarak's stringent restrictions on politics were freed up.
"We don't want revenge, we just want to apply the law. He didn't apply the law, but we want to," he said.
Internet sites such as Twitter and Facebook, used to devastating effect against Mubarak, lit up after the news.
"Mubarak is not a symbol for Egypt and he is not the father of Egyptians. He is an employee and he betrayed the trust he was given, he sold out the country, he is the reason behind the killing and the arrest of millions of Egyptians," said Mohamed Elm on Facebook.
(Additional reporting by Alexander Dziadosz, Shaimaa Fayed and Tom Pfeiffer; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Maria Golovnina)