CAIRO — The headlines of newspapers on sale in a subway station once named Mubarak, and now renamed Martyr’s, captured the moment Tuesday that could prove one of the most remarkable in modern Arab history: “The pharaoh in the cage of the accused.”
“This is a true moment of the revolution,” said one passenger, Mohammed Fathi, as trains hurtled through the din of a heaving Cairo.
The cage is precisely how it sounds — a pen barricaded with metal bars, the kind behind which the assassin of Anwar Sadat was tried 30 years ago. The pharaoh is Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, a former war hero, president and strongman toppled by the epic protests that gathered in Tahrir Square in February, who is scheduled to face trial Wednesday with his two sons, the former interior minister and six senior police officers.
By nightfall, there was still suspicion over whether Mubarak, convalescing in a hospital in a Sinai resort, would attend the trial, which will convene in a police academy in Cairo that, like the subway station, once bore his name. But the anticipation rippled across the unsettled landscape of today’s Egypt, where the revolution to overthrow him has proven far easier than the aftermath of building a new order.
In subway stations, libraries, schools and streets of a city seething with summer heat and short tempers, there was a sense of awe, anticipation and doubt at the trial of a figure whose imperial power was once so distant and uncontested that a famous Egyptian novel simply called him the Big Man. In conversations Tuesday over his fate, often heard were cries of justice, calls for vengeance and sentiments in between that felt cathartic.
“Who would have ever imagined that Mubarak would be tried?” asked Ahmed Abdullah, 30, a mechanic, standing before a school once named for Mubarak and now bearing the name of Islam’s first public crier called a muezzin. “Really, who would have believed?”
“Or his sons?” added a friend, Mohammed Ibrahim.
“It’s so strange,” Abdullah replied.
Even the very prospect of Mubarak’s trial seemed to mark a new moment in the Arab world. It is perhaps comparable to the capture, trial and execution of Saddam Hussein, although he was overthrown by a U.S. invasion based on a pretext that proved false. Mubarak was felled by a popular revolution. The scene of Mubarak standing before a judge may, in fact, make the Arab revolts in Syria, Libya and Yemen all that much more difficult to resolve. Some Arab officials have said that prosecuting Mubarak will make strongmen facing their own uprisings more reluctant to leave.
But few in Egypt, even those uneasy at the idea of an ailing 83-year-old facing charges that carry the penalty of death, worried about those implications. In a country so long ruled by the arbitrary whims of the unaccountable, they felt something had changed.