CAIRO – In his first speech since being put on trial, Egypt’s toppled President Hosni Mubarak denied Wednesday that he ordered the killing of protesters during the 2011 uprising that deposed him. Speaking from a gurney, the 86-year-old former leader sought to mend his image, clearly emboldened by the country’s changed political landscape.
Speaking from inside a cage that holds defendants, Mubarak gave a 23-minute, uninterrupted address aired live on national television. It starkly contrasted the dozens of ongoing trials of ousted President Mohammed Morsi and his supporters, toppled in last year’s military overthrow, who are crammed inside soundproof glass cages for their hearings.
“Hosni Mubarak who appears before you today would never order the killing of protesters or the shedding the blood of Egyptians,” the former autocrat said, speaking in the third person in an impassioned, defiant statement.
Mubarak was found guilty in June 2012 of failing to stop the killing of over 900 protesters during the 18-day uprising in 2011 and was sentenced to life imprisonment. His conviction was overturned in January 2013 and a retrial began in April 2013. He has spent much of his time in a military hospital since.
Relaxed and confident, Mubarak spoke about his years in the military, portraying himself as a patriotic war veteran who successfully fought terrorism. He also cast his 29-year-old rule as one that stabilized the country and achieved unprecedented economic growth.
He echoed the narrative widely repeated by other former officials in his government still in power or prominent in the media that depicts the uprising as “events” plotted by “conspirators.”
“I voluntarily chose to give up my responsibility as president to prevent bloodshed and to preserve national unity, for Egypt not to slide into a dangerous path toward the unknown,” he said, his eyes red, at times holding back tears.
Mubarak said that the 2011 protests began peacefully but were taken over by “exploiters of religion inside and outside the country” who steered the demonstrations toward violence.
Police forces collapsed in the first days of the uprising when protesters stormed police stations across the country and burned police vehicles after street clashes with security forces turned deadly.
Islamists swept later elections. Mubarak’s strongest opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood, won the presidency, with Morsi taking office in 2012.
Protesters took to the streets against Morsi over claims he abused his power, leading the military to depose Morsi last year. Since, thousands of Islamists are jailed and on trial, including Morsi who is accused of conspiring with foreign groups to destabilize Egypt.
Mubarak’s security chief Habib el-Adly, convicted and sentenced to life in prison on the same charges, is also standing trial as well with six of his top aides. The six were acquitted in the earlier trial.
Mubarak’s statement was the last of defendants’ testimonies aired live in what the media has dubbed the “trial of the century.” In past sessions, Mubarak’s police chief el-Adly described youth activists who led the uprising as foreign agents who received training and “dollars” from the United States to carry out plots against Egypt.
Since the statements have begun airing on television this week, commentators and viewers have condemned the revolt against Mubarak, praising the longtime autocrat and lamenting the turmoil that has rocked Egypt in the past years. Such publicly aired statements were unthinkable in the two years after Mubarak’s ouster. But the tide has turned against the 2011 protests with the return of a military strongman to power as Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the former army chief who led the ouster of Morsi, became president this year.
“This is all part of the re-writing of history that started since the new leadership assumed power,” said Bahy Eddin Hassan, the head of Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.
Icons of the 2011 uprising are either behind bars or fighting allegations depicting them as “American agents.” A draconian anti-protest law has suffocated street demonstrations while no official is held accountable for abuses documented by rights groups.
To many Egyptians, the end of Mubarak’s trial represents the last chapter of a revolutionary period that stunned the world.
“Mubarak has been emboldened by current regime’s criminalization of the revolution and all symbols that engineered it,” Hassan said. “This page is going to be turned whatever the ruling is because political reality is forcing it.”
The final verdict in Mubarak’s case will be issued on Sept. 27 and lawyers say a lack of evidence could see him acquitted. Since the revolt, nearly 170 police officers and security officials put on trial have been acquitted, mostly for lack of evidence or because they were found to have acted in self-defence.
And speaking like he was still in office, Mubarak appealed to Egyptians to unite behind el-Sissi.
“With years of experience, I tell every Egyptian to protect the unity of the nation and gather behind your leadership,” he said.