Ousted 83-year-old Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak lies on a gurney as… (AFP/Getty Images )
Reporting from Cairo — The trial of former President Hosni Mubarak took a scintillating turn Wednesday when the top general in Egypt's ruling military council was summoned to testify next week about the crackdown that killed hundreds of protesters in last winter's revolution.
Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi is to sit across from his deposed boss in closed sessions, as will former vice president and intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. Tantawi and Suleiman have loomed over the nation for decades and are inextricably linked to Mubarak's repressive rule.
Suleiman was the face of the regime as it crumbled in February and Tantawi was the general who sent tanks into the streets but then urged a defiant Mubarak to relinquish his palace. It is unlikely that either man's testimony will damage their friend but the prospect of their court appearances will test old alliances and add another dramatic twist to a year of upheaval.
"We can't predict anything anymore," said Islam Sherif, a 31-year-old bank accountant. "But what I know is that Suleiman was Mubarak's right-hand man and would never say anything to convict him. Same for Tantawi."
Judge Ahmed Refaat barred Egyptian and foreign journalists from reporting on the men's testimony and that of military chief of staff Sami Anan. The judge said strict secrecy was needed "to protect national security and the proper functioning of justice."
Prosecution and defense lawyers had requested that Tantawi and Suleiman be called because of their intimate knowledge of Mubarak's actions. The toppled leader has told investigators that he met regularly with his military and security staffs during the revolution.
Mubarak is charged with conspiracy to commit murder in the deaths of more than 800 people from Jan. 25 to Feb. 11, the day he gave up power.
The judge's summonses came as the prosecution struggled to keep its case from unraveling after six key police witnesses recanted statements that implicated the former leader's regime. The embarrassment indicated that witnesses may have been intimidated and that the state has yet to crack the intense loyalty that police brass feel for the ailing Mubarak and his co-defendant, former Interior Minister Habib Adli.
Families of the hundreds of victims shot by police fear that Mubarak may be acquitted. Such a prospect probably would spark street protests in a nation unnerved by months of political turmoil and economic hardship.
"I feel that none of the defendants will be convicted of any of the charges," said Maher Yehia, an engineer. "The prosecution did a poor job in selecting witnesses. Everything they said went in favor of the defendants."
The state is attempting to prove that Mubarak ordered Adli to use live ammunition to suppress the revolt. On Wednesday, police Capt. Mohamed Abdel Hakim, echoing four security officials who testified Monday, told the court he was not aware of such orders.
He said that on Jan. 28 he was attached to a brigade that went into the streets armed only with shields, batons and tear gas.
"Some of the victims were shot with live ammunition," Judge Refaat said. "Who do you think shot them?"
Hakim replied, "I don't know."
Prosecutors complained that Hakim changed his story from an earlier interrogation in which he said police were armed with rifles and birdshot. The judge detained him for perjury, but hours later released him without charges.
As during other court sessions, the 83-year-old Mubarak, who reportedly has heart problems, watched the proceedings lying on a gurney and peering through the bars of the defendant's cage. His two sons, Alaa and Gamal, who are charged with financial corruption, stood beside him, along with Adli and six other former senior Interior Ministry officials.
The most damaging testimony thus far was against Gen. Ahmed Ramzy, head of Central Command, who was said to have told security forces to use live ammunition to protect police stations and the Interior Ministry. Gameel Said, Ramzy's lawyer, was beaten by anti-Mubarak demonstrators outside the courthouse.
The case has highlighted the deep divisions across the country since Mubarak's downfall. Minor clashes between Mubarak loyalists and the families of victims erupted outside the courtroom at the Police Academy on the outskirts of Cairo.
Hassan is a news assistant in The Times' Cairo bureau.