CAIRO (Reuters) - Ousted Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak will be held to account by the people he ruled for three decades in a trial starting Wednesday that will rattle Arab rulers facing unrest across the Middle East.
Speculation swirled until hours before the start of the trial about whether the 83-year-old, hospitalized in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh since April, would turn up to face charges of conspiring over the killing of demonstrators.
Medical sources said members of his family had arrived at his hospital late Tuesday, and an airport source said a medically equipped aircraft had landed at the local airport.
Protesters are determined to see him in the dock and are likely to be enraged if he does not appear. Mubarak will be the first Arab leader to face a trial following the uprisings.
Many Egyptians see his illness as a ploy so ruling generals can avoid publicly humiliating the war veteran and ex-president who ran Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous nation, for 30 years until he was driven out on February 11.
Unlike Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, the first Arab leader to be ousted in the Arab Spring and who fled to Saudi Arabia, Mubarak has vowed to die on Egyptian soil. Ben Ali has been tried and sentenced to jail in absentia.
If convicted, Mubarak could face the death penalty. In his only public comments since stepping down, he vowed in April to clear his name and that of his family of accusations of corruption.
“If you feel sympathy for any dictator broken and standing in a cage, remember him when he was unjust on the throne,” Marian wrote on Twitter, using the website that became a valuable tool in rallying the masses during the 18-day uprising.
The cage has been erected in a hall that can seat hundreds of people in the Police Academy on the outskirts of Cairo, the same location where two days before protests erupted on January 25 Mubarak praised the work of the police in keeping Egypt secure.
Police used live ammunition, rubber bullets and teargas on protesters in Cairo and other cities. In Suez, an effigy of Mubarak hangs from a lamppost near the police station that was gutted by fire during street battles that raged there.
Also standing trial are Mubarak’s two sons Gamal, a banker-turned-politician once seen as being groomed for top office, and Alaa, who had business interests. Alongside them will be former Interior Minister Habib al-Adli, one of the most reviled members of Mubarak’s cabinet, and six senior officers.
A business executive and Mubarak confidant, Hussein Salem, is being tried in absentia.
Charges range from conspiring in the killing of protesters to abusing power to amass wealth.
Egyptians blame Mubarak for economic policies that they say filled the pockets of the rich while many of the nation’s 80 million people scrabbled in squalor to feed their families. They are also angry at his repression of any opposition to his rule.
Yet some are reluctant to see a man who was a bomber pilot and then leader of the air force in the 1973 war with Israel put in the dock.
Activist and director Mohamed Diab wrote on Twitter that the trial was “likely to cause a big rift, just like after his second speech. Imagine Mubarak with white hair, weeping and collapsing in court.”
Mubarak, who dyed his hair as he aged in office, had won over some Egyptians with his final speeches that focused on what he described as a lifetime of service. Others were angered by what they saw as his paternalistic and patronizing style.
When the army finally stepped in to take control and he was flown off to internal exile in Sharm el-Sheikh, the streets of the capital and other cities erupted into cheers.
Writing by Edmund Blair, editing by Peter Millership and Angus Macswan