CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt’s generals may have gained a short respite from street protests by putting their former commander in the dock but it will have whetted the appetites of some activists to seek more concessions and may have opened the army to unwelcome scrutiny.
Protesters have become increasingly critical of the generals who took charge of Egypt when Hosni Mubarak was driven out of office. They have been accused of the foot-dragging over the transition and also failing to try Mubarak swiftly.
They met one major demand on Wednesday, when the 83-year-old former air force commander was wheeled into court, a rare spectacle in the Arab world. Egyptians watched enthralled and activists welcomed the move.
But many activists remain frustrated that the people now running Egypt are the generals who were once loyal to Mubarak.
And the trial may yet shine an unwelcome spotlight on the army after Mubarak’s lawyer called for the testimony of the head of the ruling council, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, defense minister for two decades under the ousted president.
“It is hilarious that we get the head of a state on trial while his own minister of defense is still running the country, while his own loyal army generals are still administering this show,” said activist and blogger Hossam Hamalawy.
“If it was up to the army they would have left Mubarak to die silently in Sharm el-Sheikh. It could be extremely embarrassing for them,” he said after watching the televised trial.
Mubarak’s lawyer, Farid al-Deeb, called for Tantawi’s testimony. A lawyer for the families of the victims demanded Chief of Staff Sami Enan be called as a witness as well.
Mubarak, who ruled for 30 years, may now be determined to bring down those who failed to protect him from the courts.
“Mubarak’s lawyer wants to embroil Tantawi and the generals in council who have said several times in the media that they were given orders to fire at protesters to disband protests,” said military analyst Safwat al-Zayaat.
The army has sought to keep itself above the political fray. It has insisted its soldiers never shot on protesters. It has painted itself as a neutral party, concerned only with the national security of Egypt and stepping in out of duty.
But the army has vast business interests and, having supplied Egypt’s rulers for six decades, is likely to keep at least a hand on the levers of power even when it hands day-to-day government back to civilians via elections, analysts say.
The vote for parliament is expected in November.
The army would have been aware of the prospect of being called to take part in the trial, analysts say. They said the military may try to keep its generals out of the court, perhaps by submitting written responses if demanded.
But they are unlikley to welcome any probing that could come from the trial and which could expose the army to further criticism from protesters who have made “The people want to topple the Field Marshal” a common refrain in recent protests.
“If a confrontation happens between them and Mubarak, revealing hidden facts that could affect the council negatively, I think this would be a turning point for the Egyptian revolution,” said Ammar Aly Hassan, head of the Middle East Research and Studies Center.
But for now, he said the army was benefitting from a trial that many Egyptians thought the military would never let happen.
“The military council today gained a new batch of public sympathy because Egyptians were questioning the army generals’ willingness to bring their former leader to the dock,” Hassan said.
Yet activists may not sit back for long. They brought an end to a three-week protest in July because of the start of Ramadan, the month when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset.
Yet they said they still had more demands, such as an end to military trials for civilians and a deeper purge of the system from officials linked to Mubarak’s era.
“Trying the president is a good thing but the idea of changing the system, creating a new system on a sound basis, is more important in the coming period,” said Ahmed Maher, a senior member of the April 6 movement which played a key role in galvanising protests against Mubarak and since he was ousted.
He said Mubarak’s trial was brought about by the sit-ins and protests that have been staged in months since the president was driven from power on February 11.
“At every twist and turn in this revolution, the army is in trouble. Every concession they make to the protesters encourages more protests in order to achieve the rest of the aims of the revolution,” activist Hamalawy said.
Additional reporting by Shaimaa Fayed and Marwa Awad; Writing by Edmund Blair