Egyptian protesters chant slogans this week while surrounded by riot police… (Nasser Nasser, AP )
Reporting from Cairo — It's a dangerous time to bring Hosni Mubarak to justice.
The toppled Egyptian president is supposed to go on trial next week on charges of stealing millions of dollars from the state and ordering a crackdown that killed more than 800 protesters during last winter's uprising. A guilty verdict could result in the death penalty.
Trying the man who ruled Egypt with almost unfettered power for three decades is risky for the military council that replaced him. The proceedings are certain to offer a glimpse into the financial dealings and political alliances that allowed Mubarak to control the country, and the prospect of revealing state secrets has led to widespread belief that the generals will find a way to postpone the trial.
But any move that appears to allow Mubarak to slip from justice is sure to provoke an outraged backlash from Egyptians who regard their former leader as a tyrant. They want him called to account for filling jails with political opponents and running a government that enriched tycoons and friends in the ruling party.
That sentiment is potent in Cairo's Tahrir Square, where protesters march beneath banners depicting the deposed president with a noose around his neck.
"Mubarak brought corruption, ignorance, chronic diseases to millions of Egyptians, poverty," said Ahmed Saied Badawi, a 21-year-old university student. "He is the man behind every bad thing this country is facing, and that's why he should be tried for everything he did. It would be a great symbol for this country's future, that whoever mistreats his people will go through the same fate."
Few would have imagined months ago that the 83-year-old leader with the aloof air and hidden palaces would ever appear before a judge. But Mubarak is now under house arrest, his health reported to be worsening after suffering a heart attack in April. His condition means his trial may be held in the hospital room along the Red Sea where he is now ensconced.
His declining health evokes less rancor from some Egyptians, who see an ill man overwhelmed in later years by the country's rising problems, the death of a grandson and pressure from his wife, Suzanne, to prepare his son Gamal for succession.
"I think the president was looking at the macro picture of Egypt as if glancing down from an airplane," said Tarek Selim, an economics professor at the American University in Cairo. "He didn't see his country from the ground. The people close to him didn't tell him what was going on. He was aging and his wife wanted Gamal to be the center of attention."
But the prevailing view is that the reports of poor health are a ruse, with Egyptians believing his ailments, including reports that he has stomach cancer, slips in and out of comas and refuses to eat, are theatrics to save him from prison. Many are skeptical that Mubarak and former Interior Minister Habib Adli, who is also charged with the murder of protesters, will be tried beginning Aug. 3. The holy month of Ramadan begins next week, and some say Mubarak's lawyer will announce a new health crisis in the hours before the judge is to take the bench.
The charges of financial crimes suggest that Mubarak hid a fortune of at least $470 million in international bank accounts. Much of it is said to have been amassed beginning in the 1990s, when party officials and businessmen profited from privatization and the regime's craving for real estate. But legal experts predict that convicting Mubarak of financial crimes may be difficult because documents and other evidence were probably destroyed during the regime's final days.
One of the gambits that has enraged Egyptians was a contract given to East Mediterranean Gas Co. to sell natural gas to Israel at reduced prices. Mubarak confidant Hussein Salem was a major shareholder in the company. Prosecutors say the inside deal cost Egypt more than $700 million. Salem, who was arrested in Spain last month, allegedly pocketed millions of dollars on the contract and by manipulating the higher price of gas sold to Egyptians. Prosecutors are also investigating charges that Salem gave Mubarak five mansions, including a villa worth at least $4 million.
Such allegations epitomize a regime that underwent a shift as Gamal Mubarak, who is in prison awaiting trial, rose in the National Democratic Party. Gamal's championing of privatization spurred economic growth, but authorities say he also created a corrupt universe for the wealthy, such as Hisham Talaat Mustafa, a billionaire real estate developer convicted of planning the 2008 murder of his former girlfriend, a Lebanese pop diva.