Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, propped on a hospital bed, appears… (Associated Press )
CAIRO — The life sentence imposed on toppled President Hosni Mubarak for complicity in the deaths of hundreds of protesters marks an unprecedented milestone in Egypt's path toward democracy yet serves as a reminder of the political limitations challenging rebellions that have swept the Arab world.
Mubarak epitomized the calculating autocrat, and Saturday's verdict reverberated across a region that has seldom seen the strong so precipitously tumble in popular revolt. But behind the image of the disgraced leader propped up on a stretcher in the defendants' cage remains a nation not fully free of his grasp.
His generals are still in charge and one of his loyalists may become the next president. And while Mubarak, 84, was ordered behind bars, six top police officials were acquitted of murder charges and the deposed leader and his two sons were found not guilty of financial corruption charges.
In Egypt, jubilation continues to collide with despair, and victory is tempered by setback. Mubarak has yanked his country across a spectrum of emotion even as his fate represents a cautionary tale for kings moving to quell protests in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and a despot seeking to crush rebellion in the bloodied villages and cities of Syria.
The verdict also serves as fresh fodder in the Egyptian presidential race between Ahmed Shafik, the last prime minister to serve Mubarak, and Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi.
Brotherhood members joined thousands of protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Saturday evening to rail against a case that appeared to protect the heart of Mubarak's police state by absolving ranking police officials in the crackdown on an uprising that last year resulted in more than 840 deaths.
"This is injustice," said Safeya Sayed Shedid, whose son died in the rebellion. "Now the blood of all martyrs has gone for nothing."
The months-long trial was marked by fistfights, recanting witnesses and conflicting testimony. Presiding Judge Ahmed Refaat said the prosecution's confusing evidence failed to prove that the deposed leader ordered the killings, but the judge blamed him for not stopping the bloodshed.
In an impassioned indictment that distilled decades of suppressed national rage, Refaat said Mubarak ruled for 30 years "without a conscience and with a cold heart," subjecting his people to poverty, shanty towns and dirty drinking water. He said Mubarak allowed Egypt, once the "beacon" of the world, to collapse into "one of the most deteriorated, backward countries."
The courtroom hushed as the jurist, dressed in a green sash, his glasses sliding down his nose, said, "I will pronounce judgment ... in the name of God."
He ordered Mubarak and former Interior Minister Habib Adli to prison for the remainder of their lives for the killings of demonstrators from Jan. 25 to Feb. 11, 2011. Mubarak, dressed in a striped shirt and tan jacket, his hair brightly dyed black, listened stone-faced behind dark sunglasses. Elsewhere in the courtroom, and across the country, cheers rose.
But, as with so many things in Egypt over the last 16 months, the euphoria was short-lived. The murder charges against the senior police officials — who had directly commanded security forces during the uprising — were dismissed. Further outrage swept the courtroom when Mubarak's sons, Alaa and Gamal, who stood in white prison jumpsuits next to their father, were found not guilty of corruption charges. Similar offenses against the elder Mubarak were also dismissed.
Many said the proceedings amounted to a show trial orchestrated by the secretive military-backed government and remnants of Mubarak's inner-circle. Legal experts said the acquittals increased the odds that Mubarak's conviction would be overturned on appeal.
"This is an unjust, politicized verdict. If Adli was sentenced to life, then how on Earth did his aides get acquitted?" said Samir Helmi, a lawyer representing the families of victims. "The judge said that medical reports show injuries and bullets and yet he doesn't consider those bullets to have been shot by police officers?"
The attorney added: "Was he waiting for the dead to come out of their graves and tell him personally?"
"God's verdict is execution," families of victims shouted in the court as a skirmish broke out and Refaat hastily left the bench.
Alaa Mubarak and brother Gamal, a banker once considered Egypt's heir apparent, remained in custody under other corruption charges. Their father, an air force commander who became president after the 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat, was wheeled out of the courtroom to a helicopter. He had been staying in an army-run hospital in what has been reported as relative luxury, but the prosecutor ordered his transfer to Tora prison hospital in south Cairo.