Mr. Mubarak, his former Interior Minister Habib el-Adly, and six top police officers are charged with murder and attempted murder in connection with the protesters killed during the uprising, according to the official charge sheet. All eight could face the death penalty if convicted.
The former Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, was wheeled into a Cairo courtroom on Wednesday to face serious criminal charges, watched over television by a stunned audience, which has for long been accustomed to see authoritarian rulers in the region escape justice.
By mid-morning, Mr. Mubarak was flown in from the resort city of Sharm-el-Sheikh where he had been hospitalised. The white helicopter that brought him landed close to the Cairo police academy, venue of the trial. Inside a metal cage in the courtroom, Mr. Mubarak — lying on a stretcher, his hair dyed black and eyes alert — was accompanied by his two sons, Gamal and Alaa. All three wore the white prison clothing allotted to defendants. So did six senior police officers, who stood beside the former Interior Minister, Habid-el Adly. Hussein Salem, a businessman in the petroleum and gas industry, has been charged in absentia, because he has fled to Spain, where he is being held.
Mr. Mubarak pleaded not-guilty to an array of charges, some of which, if proved carry with them, the death penalty. The former President has been linked to the state-sponsored violence which killed 850 people and left thousands injured during the first phase of the uprising which began on January 25. King-pin of a plutocracy that impoverished millions, the Mubarak family is charged with serious economic crimes, including distorting gas deals, and abusing power to acquire land and property.
Quite apart from the technicalities of the court proceedings, it was the symbolism that the wheels of history in West Asia and North Africa were turning, evident from the presence in the dock of Mr. Mubarak, dictator for 30 years that became the most significant talking point of the day. Nearly six months ago, a popular uprising had brought to an end Mr. Mubarak's infamous three decade rule.
As the new interim military rulers hesitated to put the former President on trial, people's power flared again. Since July 8, protesters had been thronging Tahrir square, the epicentre of their rebellion, demanding from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), now in charge that the former dictator be put on trial.
Analysts point out that the open trial of a former head of state, brought down by a popular movement, is an unprecedented event in the region's recent history. Saddam Hussein, President of Iraq for 24 years, was tried and executed under foreign occupation. Most recently, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, removed from power in Tunisia, fled to Saudi Arabia and has been tried and convicted in absentia.
Observers say Mr. Mubarak's trial is likely to unnerve strongmen in other countries, including Libya, Yemen and Syria.
Wednesday's trial has visibly lifted the morale of Egypt's youthful protesters. Gigi Ibrahim, a regular at Tahrir Square since the first wave of protests began in January, wrote on her Twitter account that Mr. Mubarak's trial validated the tactics that the liberal minded, democracy campaigners had adopted. “For all those who told us ‘enough with your sit-ins and protests' you wouldn't be enjoying this moment,” she said.
For some of the families of the victims, Mr. Mubarak's trial is a major step forward to heal the deep wounds inflicted by the deaths of their loved ones. Associated Press is quoting Ghada Ali, mother of a 17-year old girl who had been shot dead in Alexandria, as saying: “I want to see their heart explode like my daughter's heart exploded from their single bullet.''
Before Judge Ahmed Refaat ordered commencement of proceedings and announced August 15 as the date of the next hearing, there was high drama outside the courthouse where people from pro and anti-Mubarak camps clashed. Against the backdrop of giant screen where the trial was being shown, activists from both sides began hurling rocks at each other, before riot police intervened to quell the fighting.