Al-Ahram Weekly Online   7 - 13 June 2012
Issue No. 1101
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Waiting for the president

On 2 June 2012, Nesmahar Sayed spent three hours in a world apart

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Clockwise from top left: Mubarak's plane landing; a protester facing security forces; TV crews spreading the news; street vendors selling tea to the crowd outside the Security Academy; an ice cream vendor serving the soldiers inside the academy; military men praying; Mubarak wheeled into the trial (photos: AP & Nesmahar Sayed)

Preparations for the fateful day -- the sentence in the trial of the former president, his sons, his interior minister and said minister's aides -- was every bit as high-profile as the names involved. The trials of well-known businessmen and other figures have created media sensations in Egypt in the past, but few people who had as much airtime or print-space as the former president Mohamed Hosni Mubarak in his time -- and none of them was subjected to trial -- followed closely by his heir apparent Gamal, whose pictures and news were widely and frequently circulated whether to accustom people to his presence in preparation for him becoming president or because he had been Egypt's de facto ruler; both claims have been made.

Nor was the next in line any less celebrated, though perhaps celebrated is not the right word: former interior minister Habib El-Adli, the regime's iron-fisted protector, is the longest-serving arbiter of the police state in recent memory (having started his term in November 1997 after the terrorist attack on the Hatshepsut Temple in Luxor, and remained in power till January 2011). But also there was Hassan Abdel-Rahman, the head of Egypt's notorious secret police, State Security: for many years, this apparatus formed the foundation of Mubarak's rule. He managed to eliminate domestic terrorism, but he also managed to garner the animosity of the vast majority of Egyptian people. All were now accused, behind bars, their destiny about to be decided.

The Security Academy (called the Mubarak Academy for Security prior to the revolution) seemed like the embodiment of a paradox; it was as if a person's end is involuntarily chosen by that person, for weren't the people being tried here now for the killing of demonstrators -- Mubarak and his henchmen -- the very ones responsible for people's lives and security? Ironically apt, therefore, that he should be tried in the security headquarters that was named after him. Still, with enormously involved security preparations, the place bespoke its name: police and army troops and special forces were stationed around tanks, armoured vehicles and even aircraft; no room was made for mistakes.

At 6.15am the vehicles conveying those in custody arrived, in the protection of Central Security vehicles, heading for the main entryway of the Police Academy where the security arrangements might have been set up to receive the president prior to him stepping down. By the time I took my seat, all the suspects had arrived with the exception of Mubarak. I chose a place somewhat far from the space assigned to the media, aiming to be roughly in the middle so that I could inspect as many angles as I could and to avoid talking to fellow journalists just yet; I needed to relax after the rigmarole of excessive security: machines beeping repeatedly for no apparent reason until, having submitted my phone and ring and watch, I realised I was wearing a silver necklace that I had forgotten about -- it was responsible for the beeping.

At 7am I recall that the trial is due to start at 10am: three whole hours to pass; what am I to do with all this time? Deciding to do as Romans do, I watch, observe, scrutinise everyone around me exactly as everyone around me is doing me. Security in uniform and in plainclothes are heavily present in the seating area; while classic secret intelligence and bodyguard corps officers are on their toes -- some with badges, some without; all extremely smart in expensive suits and sunglasses -- some guards appear to have been dismissed temporarily and are no longer exactly tense. Many are visibly tired. Some show signs of impending sleep; resting their heads on the seat in front of them, some doze quietly off. They seem to have come from all across Egypt's huge security expanse: many exchange warm greeting; they have evidently not seen each other in a long time. But subtle smiles and unforgiving commands are the name of the game: the confident veneer is somewhat disturbed by cigarette smoke; many, trying not to look too ruffled, are smoking inside. Someone is on a mobile phone right behind me: I realise he must be security; otherwise how is he allowed a mobile? I do not turn my head.

It is 7.40am: "Has everyone arrived?" Except for the president. One policeman rushes to him, asking him his name and rank and checking his ID to make sure, then leaves cordially. I ask the man behind me if he is among those securing the hall and he says no. "A journalist, then?" I play dumb. "No," he says. "Why?" I explain that I want to know why there are police among the court audience; it recalls football matches, especially those involving the army. He smiled like a true intelligence agent, effortlessly extracting all possible information from me, claiming that he worked somewhere or other, revealing nothing. In the meantime cameramen are checking their equipment, workers installing the seats for the judges and the prosecution. The basmallah followed by slow counting to test the microphone: the sound recalled popular weddings. Then, another phone call behind me: "Is the driver here?" I figure the driver was Mubarak. Even now I am pretty sure I am right about that.

8.25am. A scuffle between journalists and security over the journalists' seats, which are right next to those of the suspects' lawyers. At 8.30 Sameh Ashour, the head of the Bar Association, arrives at the hall; the legal team of civil prosecutors welcome him with gusto. It is at this moment that the said prosecutors begin to wield signs bearing pictures of the martyrs, waving them at the cameras. A long wait yet: people are chatting, others scanning newspapers; one lady is reading a book with the word "constitution" in its title. At 8.45, with permission from the officer, I move to where I can see the suspects, who are now blocked from view by a load of cameras and microphones and surrounded by security from every conceivable angle.

I end up next to the civil prosecutors, one of whom I cannot help turning to, asking, "What do you think your reaction to the sentence will be?" Magdi Rashed, who has spent 35 years of his life in courts, accommodates me, "if the suspects are indicted, however lightly, only the defence can appeal -- not us. If any of the suspects is declared not guilty, the prosecution and the civil prosecutors have the right to appeal, the criminal and the civil case respectively. The court might choose to transfer the case to a civil court too if it sees fit." I ask Rashed whether Judge Ahmed Refaat's high standing and his spotless record might affect the civil prosecutors' response to the sentence. "All I care about is the sentence," he says. "I am not interested in the judge's integrity or his professional history. In court there is no place for a personal opinion. What interests me is the legal soundness of the sentence and how it follows from the elements of the case. In fact there is no reason for the civil prosecutors or the defence to be here today, but because it concerns martyrs most of us have chosen to come, with the notable exception of Mubarak's best-known lawyer Farid El-Deeb. All that is legally required is for the suspects to be present and for the session to be public."

At this point another civil prosecutor, Amr Alieddin, joins the conversation: "In the case of Mubarak being indicted, as soon as the court utters the sentence it is no longer responsible for the suspect, who is now under the Prisons Authority supervised by the General Prosecutor. If declared not guilty, the suspect is released on condition that he is not implicated in any other case. If the prosecution decides to appeal within 60 days, the suspect is banned from leaving the country and it is up to the prosecutor to keep him in custody or release him̉ê¦"

At 9.05am the documents pertaining to the case are placed on the tables. 9.15: A civil prosecutor chants, "Out! Out!" addressing a Kuwaiti lawyer who has entered the hall and sat some distance away. Rashed discusses the tight security: "Such security is common in trials that concern public opinion. Such was the case with the trials of the Muslim Brotherhood in the long period 1965-2006, the Jihad organisation case in 1988, the businessman Hisham Talaat Mustafa's case in 2009, the Ezzat Hanafi case in 2006̉ê¦ But this particular case is exceptional in every imaginable way."

10 am: the journalists are standing on their seats in order to make out the suspects as they enter to stand behind bars. (The bars have been reinforced since the trial of the Port Said massacre suspects). The prosecutors and the judges enter, surrounded by rows of security. A woman holds a Quran. A lawyer is tapping a table with her fingers, anxious. Journalists, civil prosecutors and other lawyers fall silent as Ahmed Refaat begins to speak.

Refaat's long introduction, a paean to the revolution and an unequivocal condemnation of the last 30 years of government in Egypt, proves deeply moving to the audience; some broke audibly into tears on hearing words like "black black black" and "injustice". Since the judges entered people have communicated primarily with their eyes, the looks bearing anxiety and anticipation, warnings and commands, hope and fear. They were sometimes followed by mumbling but on Refaat beginning to speak there was no longer any sound. The dead silence remained until he uttered the sentence. Mubarak and El-Adli were sentenced to life. El-Adli's aides were acquitted. Mubarak and his sons were cleared of corruption charges. Then, noise.

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