Cairo Courtroom Turns Media Playground as Mubarak Trial Resumes

Stories of death threats and the possible assassination of an iconic actress surround Hosni Mubarak's trial - but the real intrigue lies ahead.

Hosni Mubarak is "in good health," according to a report that appeared over the weekend in the Egyptian media about the condition of the deposed Egyptian president - whose trial resumed on Monday at the police academy in Cairo.

"He eats at regular intervals and during [the recent festival of] Eid el Fitr he was visited by members of his family. He is ready and able to appear in the court on Monday," said the report, quoting "security sources."

Mubarak, sons

A number of volunteer attorneys from Kuwait had been expected to join the defense during the court hearings on Monday. They declared that they wished to participate in order to express their esteem for the former Egyptian leader who did their country a big favor when he ordered his army to join the international coalition fighting then Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in 1991.

"The Egyptians don't appreciate the value of Mubarak," said Yusry Abdul Razak, the head of the group of volunteer attorneys that got together about a month ago in order to assist Mubarak's defense team, and which also includes lawyers from other Arab countries. The volunteers arrived in Cairo, but were not allowed by the Egyptian Justice Ministry to enter the courtroom on Monday, and it is not clear whether they will get permission later on.

But the very fact that they have volunteered, and the resulting media interest they have aroused, indicates their apparent intention of taking the trial out of its Egyptian framework and turning it into an international forum, or at least an "Arab trial," where it will be possible to present Mubarak's foreign policy as part of the defense.

The problem is that the appearance of Kuwaiti attorneys on the scene brings back some unpleasant memories for the Egyptians.

"It was the Americans and the Europeans who in the end benefited from the Egyptian assistance to Kuwait and not the Egyptians," wrote a surfer on Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm's website.

Others recalled that Kuwaiti refugees who managed to reach Egypt during the Iraqi occupation would act haughtily and arrogantly toward Egyptian citizens. "They saw us as servants who had to answer their every whim," one of them wrote.

And on the Saudi Elaph site one surfer reminded the Kuwaitis how angry they had been at the Jordanian attorneys who wished to volunteer to help Saddam. "And now you are volunteering to defend Mubarak? You should be ashamed," he wrote. From this point on, the argument between the surfers focused on a comparison between Mubarak and Saddam, with the conclusion being that while Mubarak was better than Saddam, Kuwait could not claim to be guilt-free.

Mysterious affair

This is the third time the court is convening to try Mubarak, but so far it has dealt only with administrative matters. The really intriguing part is still ahead. It appears that the intention of holding a quick and to- the-point trial will remain just a wish. Nevertheless, procedural delays have not prevented a plethora of stories around the trial from flooding the media.

Last week, for example, it was reported that the chief presiding judge, Ahmed Rifaat, had received letters warning him that his life would be in danger if he failed to acquit Mubarak, while opposition newspaper Al Wafd resurrected the mysterious affair of the death of the popular actress Soad Hosny. Hosny, who appeared in 75 Egyptian films and was a national icon, fell to her death from the balcony of a London hotel in June 2001. The Egyptian authorities immediately stated she had committed suicide, a version that her fans refused to accept because they suspected she had been murdered by agents of the Mubarak regime.

Last week's article in Al Wafd claimed that Hosny had been conscripted against her will into Egyptian intelligence. The story goes that she was enticed by an Egyptian intelligence officer who dressed up as a Frenchman and clandestinely photographed her while cuddling with him, and that Egyptian intelligence then blackmailed her into joining its ranks by saying the photographs would otherwise be published and she would be suspected of spying for the French.

According to Al Wafd, it was the high-ranking intelligence officer Safwat El-Sharif, who later became Mubarak's omnipotent information minister and is currently also on trial in Cairo, who planned and ordered that Hosny be enlisted. Her task was to get information from foreign heads of state and ministers, according to the report, which quoted a senior intelligence source, but after a few years, she informed her operators she was no longer prepared to do this.

"I have grown old, find someone else and let me rest," she reportedly said. The same source said that the decision to kill her was taken when intelligence officers learned that she planned to publish her memoirs.

"The National Defense Council is the only authority in Egypt that can issue an assassination order of this kind against an intelligence agent," one source told the newspaper. The council was headed by Mubarak and among its members were the head of his bureau, Zakariya Azmi, and the ministers of the interior, foreign affairs, and information, as well as the head of intelligence, Omar Suleiman. If one of the council members was opposed, the source told the newspaper, the final decision was in the hands of the president.

If the prosecution now decides to expand its interrogation and reopens the Hosny case, it could make matters even worse for Mubarak and most of those who served under him at that time.

It is interesting to note that so far no one has raised suspicions or complaints against Suleiman, who is still one of the star candidates for the presidential elections due to take place at the end of this year. One explanation is that he has agreed to be a "state witness" in Mubarak's trial after he previously declared in one of his testimonies that Mubarak knew everything that was happening in Tahrir Square, including the fact that protesters were being killed.

Suleiman, who is often called "the black box," also knows a lot about the heads of the army and the opposition. There are too many people who have an interest in not letting him appear on the accused's dais. But even without him, it seems there will be no dearth of stories.