Guilty or not, Saturday’s verdict in Hosni Mubarak’s trial will likely deepen Egypt’s polarization. Political tensions are already simmering in a heated runoff for president pitting the ousted leader’s last prime minister against an Islamist from a group that the old regime repeatedly cracked down.
The 84-year-old Mubarak, the first Arab leader to be tried by his own people, faces charges of complicity in the killing of some 900 protesters during last year’s uprising that forced him from power.
If convicted, he could face the death penalty. He also faced separate corruption charges along with his two sons - one-time heir apparent Gamal and wealthy businessman Alaa - and a family friend who is on the run.
“We are so eagerly awaiting the verdict,” said George Ishaq, who gained nationwide fame as a vocal critic of Mubarak’s rule. “An innocent verdict will trigger a horrific reaction.”
His trial mesmerized the nation, with images of him lying on a hospital gurney inside a defendants’ cage of iron bars and barbed wire taken by most Egyptians to symbolize both their triumph over tyranny and the humiliation of a dictator who ruled for close to 30 years.
He rarely spoke and when it was time for him to address the court in his own defense, he chose to submit a letter in which he pleaded his innocence.
While in progress, the trial dominated the national conversation and fed tension in an already turbulent transitional period under the tutelage of the ruling generals who took over from him, with many convinced the process was just for show to appease protesters who demanded that Mubarak answers for his actions.
Mubarak loyalists frequently fought with relatives of dead protesters outside the court, a lecture hall in a police academy once named after him. Lawyers seeking damage for the victims’ families, as well as publicity, occasionally chanted slogans against him in court.
The verdict comes just days after electoral officials announced that Mubarak’s last prime minister and one-time protege Ahmed Shafiq is one of two candidates who made it into a presidential runoff slated for June 16-17.
Like his mentor, Shafiq is a career air force officer. He and Mohammed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood emerged from last week’s first round vote as the top vote-getters in a field of 13 candidates.
Mursi’s candidacy has raised serious concern among many Egyptians that he would inject more religion into government if he wins. Others fear Mursi’s Brotherhood, empowered after spending the best part of the last 60 years as an illegal organization, will become the nation’s new dictatorship, a possibility that’s intensely propagated by some in the official media.
Shafiq’s own presidential run is scaring many who fear he would recreate the old regime, pardon Mubarak, his sons, and regime stalwarts in jail awaiting trial. They fear he may also revive the widely hated Mubarak-era alliance between government and business.
A guilty verdict on Saturday, some believe, could endear Shafiq to more voters and, in some ways, lend credence to his pledge that he will not recreate the old regime if elected.
Shafiq ran on an anti-revolutionary platform, frequently making disparaging comments about the youth groups behind last year’s uprising, but he changed tack after his second-place finish, speaking of the “glorious revolution” and that there was no turning back the clock.
An innocent verdict for Mubarak, however, would send protesters out on the streets to demand “revolutionary justice” for the former president and seriously undermine Shafiq’s chances of winning the land’s highest office.
“The Mubarak legacy continues to impact the country’s politics,” said Negad Borai, a lawyer and a rights activist. “The 15 months since his ouster are not enough to remove him from the scene. After 30 years in power, it may take five or more years for that to happen.”
In many ways, the Mursi-Shafiq contest mirrors the enmity between Mubarak and the Brotherhood during the last three decades. And a Mursi triumph would be the realization of Mubarak’s oft-repeated prophecy that the Brotherhood would take over after he is gone.
Egyptians remain fascinated by what Mubarak does and says.
The independent al-Watan newspaper has tapped into that interest by publishing partial accounts of Mubarak’s life in prison hospitals and the time he spends at the courthouse with his sons and fellow defendants. The authenticity of those accounts cannot be verified, but some of the comments attributed to him are exactly what Egyptians grew accustomed to hearing from him during his long rule.
“These guys are so incompetent, they will bankrupt a cigarette kiosk if they run one,” he was quoted as saying of the 13 presidential candidates. “Good riddance, he wrecked (Egypt) and left,” he was quoted as saying when told that top reform leader and Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei pulled out of the presidential race.
The Mubarak trial, which began 10 months ago, is likely to be remembered as a defining event in the Arab Spring uprising that have swept across the Middle East and North Africa.
But the process has been less than perfect, according to legal experts. It was held in a charged atmosphere. Lawyers for the victims’ families behaved chaotically and the prosecutor’s case was generally seen as weak.
“On the whole, the trial was rushed and politicized,” said Nasser Amin, a legal expert.
Feeding widely held suspicions that ruling generals, led by Mubarak’s defense minister of 20 years, have only grudgingly put Mubarak and his sons on trial, the former leader has since his arrest in April last year stayed in luxury hospitals, first in his favorite Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh and later at a military hospital east of Cairo.
His sons swagger without handcuffs into the courtroom from the armored vans that bring them from prison. Some police officers salute Mubarak’s co-defendant and former security chief Habib el-Adly when he arrives in court wearing designer sunglasses and a blue baseball cap matching his prison uniform.
Like Mubarak, el-Adly, who led the hated police force, faced charges of complicity in the killing of the protesters. Four top police commanders are also on trial in the same case.
Just days before the verdict was set to be delivered, the Mubarak sons were slapped with new charges of insider trading along with seven other people.
The prosecutor general’s office said on Wednesday the two made illicit gains in the millions of Egyptian pounds from the sale in 2007 of a bank in which they secretly held a controlling stake without informing authorities.
The new case, which was referred to trial, was interpreted as a timely attempt by Egypt’s military rulers to assuage anger over the possible ascent to the presidency of Shafiq.