New York Times
Egypt’s Military Leader Testifies at Mubarak Trial
September 24, 2011
ANTHONY SHADID and HEBA AFIFY
CAIRO — Egypt’s military ruler, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, testified Saturday at the trial of his onetime patron and colleague, former President Hosni Mubarak, in a closed hearing that disappointed prosecutors who had hoped he would help determine whether the ousted Egyptian leader conspired to order the killing of unarmed demonstrators in his final days in power in February.
The appearance of Field Marshal Tantawi was another dramatic moment in a trial that has swung between poignant moments that seemed to illustrate the frailty of absolute power, and chaotic scenes in court that have undermined public faith in the proceedings. The judge presiding over the trial ordered that Field Marshal Tantawi’s testimony be heard behind closed doors, in contrast to the court’s first session in August, when Mr. Mubarak pleaded innocent from a gurney in a courtroom cage. That session, lasting hours, was televised nationwide by Egyptian state television.
Lawyers said that Field Marshal Tantawi’s testimony lasted nearly an hour but fell far short of their expectations. One lawyer said he failed to provide evidence one way or the other about Mr. Mubarak’s role in the crackdown on protesters, saying that he was not present in meetings that could have proven decisive to the prosecutors’ case. “We thought that he would say either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and solve the whole case, but this didn’t happen,” the lawyer said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
If the lawyer’s version proves correct, it may serve to deepen suspicions in the country that Mr. Mubarak’s former allies in the military are trying to acquit him of more serious charges. The military leaders seem loath, as well, to possibly incriminate themselves in decisions taken before the president was overthrown.
Those suspicions surfaced early in the trial, when the first five witnesses, all police officials, recanted what prosecutors said were initial statements about instructions from senior police officials to use live ammunition or other force against demonstrators. It appeared at that time that prosecutors had intended to build their case against the country’s former leaders from the bottom up, starting with the orders issued to police officers confronting the demonstrators.
Lawyers for victims’ families described Saturday’s session as chaotic — one said a fight broke out and the police roughed up a lawyer. Many of their colleagues were not allowed into court, and lawyers were allowed to ask only a handful of questions of Field Marshal Tantawi. In response, one lawyer filed a challenge, insisting Judge Ahmed Refaat be replaced. The trial was adjourned until Oct. 30 to allow another court time to review the challenge and decide the judge’s fate.
“This is all a big show,” said Abdel-Karim Ibrahim, whose brother was among those killed in the protests. “How long are they going to postpone the trial? Will they keep postponing it till people forget? If there are no positive steps taken before the end of September, we will go back to the streets and take our rights with our own hands.”
Until last week, there were questions of whether Field Marshal Tantawi would even testify, which is being held in a police academy once bearing Mr. Mubarak’s name. He was scheduled to appear Sept. 11, but failed to attend, citing a busy schedule and offering to provide written testimony instead. He was summoned again, and on Friday, in a statement carried by the state news agency, he said he would appear before the court.
Though a veteran of Mr. Mubarak’s tenure, having served 20 years as his defense minister, Field Marshal Tantawi said he wanted “to stress the rule of law, which must be the guiding approach for the Egyptian state after the January 25 revolution.”
Since Feb. 11, when Mr. Mubarak was forced from office after protests convened in Tahrir Square, Field Marshal Tantawi has served as the head of the ruling military council, which has exercised absolute and largely unaccountable power. It claimed to seize power in the name of the revolution, but after months of ineffectual rule, suspicions over its willingness to fully surrender power and a plan for elections that has satisfied few, the council’s appeal has diminished.
“All of those ruling us were here before the revolution and they did nothing for us,” Mohammed Abdel-Gawad, an accountant, said after Friday Prayer at a crowded mosque. “We’re still waiting for the party that’s going to bring us change, real change.”
Mr. Mubarak, 83, is being tried on charges of corruption and of conspiring to kill nearly 840 unarmed protesters. Field Marshal Tantawi’s testimony was considered crucial to the second charge since he was part of the former president’s inner circle.
Last week, another confidant of Mr. Mubarak, Omar Suleiman, the former intelligence chief and, briefly, vice president, testified. Field Marshal Tantawi’s deputy on the council, Sami Anan, the chief of staff of the armed forces, was scheduled to appear before the court on Sunday, but that will apparently be delayed.
Field Marshal Tantawi arrived Saturday with a military escort to the court where, as in past sessions, scores of admirers and detractors of Mr. Mubarak shared space in a parking lot. Mr. Mubarak was at the trial, though given the news blackout, it was unclear how he responded to the testimony. Lawyers had said that Mr. Mubarak would be offered a chance to comment after each witness testified.
Also facing the charges of conspiring to kill protesters are former Interior Minister Habib el-Adly, one of the most loathed figures in recent years here, along with six senior former security officials. On the corruption charges, Mr. Mubarak’s sons, Alaa and Gamal, stand accused with their father.
*Photo by Amr Nabil