Mubarak Spectacle Captivates the Middle East
By Rick Gladstone
The New York Times
August 3, 2011
Hosni Mubarak’s televised trial transformed Egypt and much of the Middle East into a vast living room on Wednesday, with millions of viewers, from the shops of Amman and Jerusalem to the hovels of impoverished Yemen, mesmerized by the live broadcasts of a once-unthinkable spectacle beamed from a Cairo court.
The sight of Mr. Mubarak, the former Egyptian president, 83 and ailing, confined to a hospital gurney inside a defendant’s cage reserved for common thugs evoked a range of reactions, with some people feeling the thrill of a vengeful comeuppance and others expressing pity for a proud man who once embodied the archtypical Arab autocrat.
Regardless of their politics or religion, many shared a feeling of watching a historical moment, not unlike the day nearly six months ago when Mr. Mubarak was deposed by an 18-day revolution that remade the region’s political dynamics.
“Everybody is watching from all parts of the society, young and old, pro-democracy or pro-government,” said Hussain Abdulla, 23, a human rights activist in Bahrain, where the monarchy has suppressed, sometimes violently, a democracy movement inspired by the events in Egypt. “Of course all the people who are pro-democracy are happy with it and it gives them a push to continue struggling.”
In Jordan, a clothing store salesman in Amman, the capital, who identified himself as Hisham said he like many others in Jordan was glued to the television in the middle of the day, awed by the trial’s opening four hours. “This is the trial that everybody has been looking forward to,” he said.
Many Jordanians — who have been demonstrating every Friday for political reforms in their own country — said they never believed they would witness such a thing. When Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator, was captured, Jordanians saw it as a result of the American invasion and occupation. On the contrary, Mr. Mubarak’s trial, they said, was the Egyptian people’s demand.
In Baghdad, some Iraqis drew parallels between the prosecutions of both former leaders.
“Saddam and Mubarak were criminals in their own way,” said Ahmed Amer, 40. “Let the people see the destiny of these tyrants. They have to put him on trial because he’s destroyed the Egyptian people.”
Salam Ali, 48, a former teacher in Baghdad, said that many of his friends and relatives had watched the opening of Mr. Mubarak’s trial. “It’s fair for them to show it on TV, because he’s been the servant of Israel and America,” he said. “They should execute him.”
In Yemen, the Middle East’s poorest and most unstable country, where a movement to oust the autocratic president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has been underway for months, protesters camped at an antigovernment demonstration in Sana, the capital, gathered around large screens showing Al Jazeera’s coverage of the trial. Many said they wanted to see Mr. Saleh and his family put on trial as well.
“Yemenis will learn a lot of lessons from the trial of Mubarak,” said Nabil al Hubaishi, who runs a small shop on Sana’s southern outskirts. “They will learn that everyone should be held accountable, even the president.”
Not everyone in Yemen shared that view. Some criticized the trial as a political charade.
“I don’t support it at all,” said Suad Mohamed, a middle-aged homemaker whose husband is in Yemen’s military. “Mubarak was the leader of Egypt. Now he is going to be tried when he is sick. Why?” Egyptians, she said, should be “applying rule of law in their new state. For Mubarak, it’s enough that he was ousted.”
It was unclear how many people were watching the trial in Syria, where security forces have been trying to crush a five-month-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad. There has been speculation that Mr. Assad used the distraction of the Mubarak trial to order his security forces to seize the restive city of Hama, where dozens of people have been killed since Syrian armored columns first shelled the city on Sunday.
In much of Egypt itself, the trial stopped many daily routines. Cairo residents crowded into cafes or anywhere with a TV. Reuters reported that the city’s infamously clogged traffic had thinned during the broadcast.
The trial also drew a large audience in Israel, where many viewed the images of Mr. Mubarak with a sense of unease. Although he was a dictator, several Israeli commentators said, Mr. Mubarak had also been a reliable ally who upheld Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel for 30 years. It was also noted that the corruption charges against Mr. Mubarak included a natural gas deal that his regime made with Israel.
In the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza, feelings were more conflicted. Many who watched the live broadcasts from the courtroom, on television and the Internet, expressed satisfaction that Mr. Mubarak was being brought to justice. Some said that it enhanced the credibility of Egypt’s interim military government. Others said they felt that the humiliation of the ailing former president went too far.
There was a measure of pity among some Gazans. Most, however, blamed Mr. Mubarak for having aided Israel in imposing a strict blockade of Gaza over the past few years, by keeping the Rafah crossing on Gaza’s border with Egypt mostly closed.
Abeer Ayyoub, a journalist in Gaza and a researcher for a human rights group, said that Mr. Mubarak deserved to be on trial for what he did to Gaza and to his own people. At the same time, she said, the trial had to be fair, adding, “This trial looks to be a matter of revenge.”
In the Libyan rebel stronghold of Benghazi, the images of the former Egyptian president in court mostly elicited expressions of satisfaction, and envy, from people who have stumbled pursuing their own revolution to oust Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, who has ruled Libya for four decades.
Rafiq el-Fellah, the leader of a rebel militia assigned to find pro-Qaddafi agents and saboteurs in Benghazi, said he had been too busy with work to watch on television but had read the news about Mr. Mubarak: “He was brought into a cage in a bed. I like that very much. When justice is like that, we have a bright future,” Mr. Fellah said.
Mohammed Ali, a gasoline station attendant, said he was impressed with the Egyptian judicial system, a hopeful sign for its democracy.
“It’s not easy for us Arabs to bring a president to court,” he said. “It was kind of stunning. We hope it will be an example.”
Reporting was contributed by Michael S. Schmidt in Baghdad, Heba Afify in Cairo, Nada Bakri in Beirut, Isabel Kershner in Jerusalem, Fares Akram in Gaza, Laura Kasinof in Washington, Nasser Arrabyee in Sana, Yemen, Ranya Kadri in Amman, Jordan, and Kareem Fahim in Benghazi, Libya.