Egypt's then-President Hosni Mubarak, at a White House speech last… (Associated Press )
Reporting from Cairo — Egypt will put Hosni Mubarak, its president for three decades, on trial in connection with the deaths of protesters during the uprising that forced him from office, prosecutors said Tuesday, raising the prospect that the region's push for reform would force a modern Arab strongman to face justice before his own people.
Adel Said, a spokesman for Egypt's prosecutor general, said Mubarak could face the death penalty on charges that he conspired in the killings.
But the announcement appeared aimed at least in part at appeasing victims' families and blunting a major demonstration planned for Friday. Many Egyptians said they were skeptical that the 83-year-old former president, who has been allowed to remain at a hospital near his villa in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el Sheik, would ever face justice.
"His first day in court will be a good day for the families of those who were murdered," said Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a Cairo group that has worked with the families of some protesters who were killed.
"We remain concerned at the lack of transparency and coherence and the lack of strategy to deal with all crimes of the past," Bahgat said, including what he called "the failure of the prosecution to disclose the details of the investigation and the kind of evidence they have amassed against Mubarak and his sons."
Mubarak's sons, Gamal and Alaa, who are being held in a Cairo prison, were also charged Tuesday with abusing power to amass wealth, enriching associates and accepting bribes, the office of Prosecutor General Abdel Meguid Mahmoud said. Many believed that before the revolution, Gamal was being groomed to succeed Mubarak.
Hussein Salem, 77, a Mubarak associate wanted by Interpol, was also charged but remained at large. No trial dates have been set.
The announcement came at a sensitive time for the military-dominated transitional government running Egypt until parliamentary and presidential elections this year.
Protesters have demanded that Mubarak stand trial, frustrated that demonstrators have been jailed, tried and sentenced by military courts while Mubarak and most of his inner circle have managed to escape punishment.
A criminal court Sunday issued the first death sentence to a police officer for killing protesters during the uprising. The officer, Mohammed Ibrahim Abdel Monem, was sentenced in absentia for killing at least 20 demonstrators and injuring more than a dozen by randomly firing his rifle outside a police station Jan. 28.
On Saturday, a judge postponed the trial of former Interior Minister Habib Adli and four of his aides, who are accused of shooting protesters, after victims' families attempted to storm the courtroom, shouting "Butcher! Butcher!"
Last Friday, thousands of protesters streamed into Tahrir Square, chanting for Mubarak to be jailed. Some hoisted signs that showed him behind bars and dressed like a convict.
Protesters are also seething that the former first lady, 70-year-old Suzanne Mubarak, was allowed to avoid prison by suddenly complaining of heart problems after she was ordered detained this month. She stayed at the same hospital as her husband for a few days, then was released from custody after she turned over about $4 million in assets and property to the government. Prosecutors say she is still being investigated.
Emad Gad, an analyst at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, said that prosecuting members of the former regime is key for the new government.
"It's a matter of credibility for the government and the supreme military council," Gad said. "They have to apply the law, to secure the Egyptian society."
Activists saw the prosecutor's statement as an attempt to head off Friday protests, dubbed "Egypt's second revolution." Demonstrators are expected to demand that Mubarak be tried, members of his former regime expelled from the government and the former government's emergency laws overturned.
"It's 30 years too late," said Tarek Shalaby, 26, a blogger and social media consultant recently jailed for protesting outside the Israeli Embassy in Cairo.
The process is also likely to be watched closely around the Middle East and North Africa, where revolts this year brought down two long-standing leaders, Mubarak and Tunisian President Zine el Abidine ben Ali, and threatened rulers in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria.
Joel Beinin, a professor of Middle East history at Stanford, said it was unlikely that Mubarak will get the death penalty or even a hefty sentence, given his advanced age, deteriorating health and record as a war hero.
He said bringing charges against Mubarak also raises the thorny issue of whether the military government should also be held accountable for protesters' deaths. "It's unclear how far this can go. If the charge is killing protesters, there were others who authorized that up the chain of command," Beinin said.
"They probably did not want to put Mubarak in the dock and have only done it to address the growing distrust," Beinin said. "They threw him under the bus."
The leading presidential candidate, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, served as Mubarak's foreign minister. Although the two also have been rivals, Moussa will have to more forcefully distance himself from the former president to win support from a population clearly dissatisfied with the pace of the transition, Beinin said.
Special correspondent Mayy el-Sheikh contributed to this report.