CAIRO (Reuters) - In his last address to the nation as president, Hosni Mubarak vowed he would never leave his homeland and would die on its soil. His decision not to flee Egypt may carry a heavy price.
Wednesday, Mubarak is to be tried for conspiring to kill protesters who drove him from office on February 11 after 30 years at the helm. If convicted, he could face the death penalty, though few expect that outcome even if some protesters wish it.
As a visible example of the change that has swept Egypt, the court has been set up in a Cairo Police Academy that once bore his name in big concrete letters, which have since torn down.
The trial of a man who fashioned himself a leader of the Arab world will be felt beyond Egypt’s borders, reverberating across a region where other longtime rulers face unprecedented challenges from protesters or armed rebellions.
“I and Egypt will not part until I am buried in its soil,” Mubarak said in on February 10, the day before he was ousted. He was dressed somberly with the black tie he has worn since his grandson died in 2009.
A day later the military he once commanded took over and he was whisked off to the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh amid jubilation on the streets. Since April, he has been in hospital there. A source close to him said last week that his lawyer would tell the judge Mubarak was too ill to attend trial.
If he turns up he will be the first Arab leader to stand trial after uprisings toppled him as well as Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia in January.
If Mubarak fails to show up, that is likely to anger protesters determined to see the former president in the dock. They accuse him of ruling the country as a personal fiefdom, allowing his family and allies to profit, while swathes of the country were stuck in dire poverty, and of crushing opposition with an iron fist.
Mubarak always presented himself as a fatherly figure protecting the nation -- a manner that increasingly grated with the public. Speculation that he was grooming his son Gamal for the presidency added to anger on the street.
In his final days in charge, a transfer of power to Gamal was ruled out but Mubarak never dropped his paternalistic style.
“I say it again that I have lived for the sake of this nation, protecting the nation and carrying my responsibilities and Egypt will remain above any individual and above everybody,” he said in his last televised address.
Until January 25, when protests erupted with a force that seemed to surprise even some of the demonstrators who organised them, Mubarak had looked like an almost immovable force. Jokes had abounded about his longevity. But 18 days later he was out.
He was not the first Arab leader to be toppled. But the fall of the leader of the Arab world’s most populous nation, who was a central figure in Arab politics, carried greater weight.
Mubarak had not always seemed such a permanent fixture. The former air force commander was thrust into power in 1981 after President Anwar Sadat was assassinated by Islamists during a military parade. Many wondered at the time if he would last.
In the mid-1980s, security officers mutinied over pay and conditions in Cairo. The army was sent in to beat them back. In the 1990s, his security forces stamped out an Islamist revolt.
Islamists remained a target through his presidency. His government would point to them as the alternative if Mubarak left, a tactic that shored up support from the United States and the West, where politicians fretted about another Iran or a new Hamas-led Gaza on a grander scale.
Yet, when demonstrators took to the streets, they were not led by the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s most organised group, but by Internet-savvy youths who put nationalism above religion.
Even then, Mubarak did not change tack. In a U.S. television interview, as protests raged, he blamed the Brotherhood. In one of his last addresses, he spoke of the choice between chaos and stability, leaving little doubt that he would bring the latter.
His supporters can argue that he steadied Egypt after Islamists shot dead Sadat, kept Egypt out of wars, restored relations with the Arab world after the 1979 peace treaty with Israel and, after long delays, allowed his government to open up the economy to stimulate growth.
RULING EGYPT ‘NO PICNIC’
The economy had roared away in the last few years and sailed relatively unscathed through the world financial crisis.
But ordinary Egyptians argued that it was a lopsided boom even before the crisis shaved the top off growth. They said it filled the pockets of a rich elite through cheaply sell-offs of land or industry to cronies while others wallowed in poverty.
Always dourly confident, never showing a trace of doubt about his lifetime achievements, Mubarak never seemed to grasp the depth of popular hatred he had accumulated in 30 years.
While a group of liberalizing ministers led by his politician son Gamal were allowed to change Egypt’s economic make-up, he stubbornly refused to open up politics.
“Nobody imagines that we can press a button and freedoms will arrive. Otherwise it would lead the country to chaos, and that would be a danger to people,” he said in 2004.
A year later he highlighted the challenges of running a nation with a youthful and growing population, saying: “Governing Egypt is not a picnic, not something easy.”
Elections were routinely rigged in favor of his ruling party. Rights groups said the 2010 parliamentary vote was a particularly crude example, giving almost no seats to the opposition. That vote fueled the anger that brought him down.
His own beginnings were modest. Born on May 4, 1928, in the Nile Delta village of Kafr Musailha, he joined the military academy in 1947, later opting for the air force. He flew bombers and went on to lead the air force in the 1973 war with Israel.
He was appointed vice-president by Sadat. But when he became president, Mubarak left that post open until his last days in office. When it was finally filled by his intelligence chief Omar Suleiman it was too little, too late to quell public anger.
He was a target of several assassination attempts in office, including an attack on his motorcade in Addis Ababa in 1995.
From the 1990s, Mubarak acted as an unofficial patron of the Middle East peace process, mediating between Palestinians and Israelis, and between rival Palestinian factions in an elusive quest for a settlement.
His Arab critics say he gave too much weight to U.S. and Israeli interests to the detriment of ordinary Palestinians.
He rode out U.S. President George W. Bush’s short-lived campaign for democracy in the Arab world, allowing a multi-candidate presidential election for the first time in 2005. He was elected for another term, to the surprise of no one.
Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Louise Ireland