A Caged Mubarak in the Dock

The fall of the Egyptian president may foreshadow something much worse.

In a scene most Egyptians believed would never happen, former President Hosni Mubarak, confined to a stretcher, was wheeled into a cage in a makeshift courtroom at the national police academy, located in a suburb east of Cairo. He is to stand trial for corruption and for the murders of nearly 850 protesters slain during the uprising last winter. As many Egyptians revel in the dramatic event, other spectators cannot overlook troubling changes in their country's political landscape. For even if justice is served in the trial, the fear remains that the fall of Mubarak heralds the rise of something much worse.

The trial begins just days after hundreds of thousands of Salafists poured into Tahrir Square calling for Egypt to become an Islamist state and adopt Sharia as the law of the land. The demonstration, which shocked many analysts with its organization and discipline, raised the specter of a union between the Salafists, represented by their political party Al Nour or "The Light," and the Muslim Brotherhood. The alliance threatens to sweep Islamic extremists into power when the elections are held in November or December.

The prospect of such a catastrophe coming to pass weighs heavily on the military, which has delayed elections in order to give secular parties more time to organize. And it points up the dilemma in which secular Egyptians find themselves. Mubarak -- a brutal tyrant who tortured opponents and suppressed the political opposition, while playing a double game by cozying up to Islamists -- might be a devil, but he's a devil they know. The frightening possibility that a union of extremists might come to power, establish Sharia law, abrogate the treaty with Israel, and become an implacable foe of the West, is one that has both secular parties and the nation's military on edge.

Regardless, Mubarak's trial is unprecedented in the Arab world and is being closely watched in the region. Aside from the trial of Saddam Hussein that occurred thanks to American intervention, the idea of holding a dictator accountable for his actions in a court of law rather than being shipped off into exile or murdered in a bloody revolution is entirely new. And the spectacle of the once nearly omnipotent Mubarak in a cage wearing prison whites has riveted the Egyptian people as perhaps nothing else since the protests against the dictator began last February.

The former dictator, rumored to be suffering from cancer, looked pale and weak, but answered the judge's query about his guilt or innocence in a defiant voice. "I deny all these accusations completely," he said, wearily waving his hand.

Whether or not Mubarak is suffering from cancer or simply playing for sympathy, his appearance in a wire cage, lying on a stretcher, shielded from cameras by his two sons who are also on trial for corruption, has electrified the country as millions watch live on television. “I am dreaming,” Hossam Muhammad said as he watched the trial. “Somebody pinch me.” The mother of a 17-year-old girl murdered during the protests said, "This is the dream of Egyptians, to see him like this, humiliated like he humiliated them for the last 30 years."

Judging by the long speeches made by attorneys for both sides, the trial may very well degenerate into a circus, or worse, a show trial, where the powerful emotions of Mubarak's many victims will be given free reign, and the proceedings will appear to be an exercise in revenge. The military and the reformers can ill-afford for that to happen, since it may even generate sympathy for Mubarak if he is seen as being railroaded to a guilty verdict.

Hundreds of pro- and anti-Mubarak protesters demonstrated outside of the trial venue. One source told The Telegraph that 54 people were injured when the two sides threw stones and bottles at each other. The pro-Mubarak protesters were especially emotional, screaming, "We will demolish and burn the prison if they convict Mubarak." Many wore T-shirts with the slogan, "I'm Egyptian. I reject the insulting of the leader of the nation."

Defense attorneys have already made it clear that they will slow the proceedings to a crawl. They want to call more than 1,000 witnesses, including Defense Minister Hussein Tantawi, who is current head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Mubarak's lawyers claim that Tantawi was in charge of security after January 28, which is when most of the deaths occurred.

That line of argumentation will probably fall on deaf ears with the Egyptian people. They endured 30 years of Mubarak's brutality and corruption. Not only were Egyptians oppressed by the dictator politically, but the economic life of the country was stunted by his cronyism, handing the directorships of companies to his friends in the military, while denying economic opportunities to ordinary people by decreeing monopolies and steering government contracts away from rivals. Most Egyptians would agree that no fate that befalls Hosni Mubarak would be too horrible.

But after all that is said and the justice system has its way with him, exactly what is it that the Egyptian people will have won? Will they trade a somewhat secular dictator for the religious oppression guaranteed by the Islamists? One woman, upon seeing the hundreds of thousands of extremists demonstrating in Tahrir Square last week, said, "I think I will have to leave Egypt." Despite the airy assurances of President Obama and other Western leaders in the immediate aftermath of the overthrow of Mubarak that Egypt was on the way to "democracy," the facts on the ground are far murkier and, in fact, threaten the kind of scenario that was brushed aside by the US State Department as unrealistic just a few short months ago.

No one knows precisely how much support the Muslim Brotherhood and its Salafist allies might get in the upcoming elections. The estimate that the Salafists make up only 10-20% of the population seems low when contemplating the results of a Pew poll from April of this year. Some of the results from that survey are extremely disturbing. Pew found that 54% of Egyptians want to end the peace treaty with Israel. Another 62% support the imposition of Sharia law on the country. Also, 18% say they will support the Muslim Brotherhood in the elections, the second highest total for any party. A previous Pew poll from last December shows widespread support for traditional Islamic punishments such as lopping off hands for thievery and stoning for adultery.

That same poll revealed that almost half the country had a favorable opinion of Hamas. Indeed, since the SCAF took power, the flow of guns into Gaza has increased, as one of the first major acts of the new government was to open the border crossing of Rafah.

What these surveys appear to show is that support for the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist extremists is wider, deeper, and stronger than anyone assumed when Mubarak was kicked out of power last February. And while the trial of Hosni Mubarak may give a lot of satisfaction and act as an emotional catalyst for most Egyptians, it may also symbolically usher in a new, darker chapter in Egypt's history -- one that not only threatens to destroy any hope for real democracy, but also threatens Israel and Egypt's neighbors with the worst kind of Islamic extremism and oppression.