It was a telling moment for Egypt and its ill-fated revolution a month shy of the eighth anniversary of the Arab Spring uprising.
Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted then, testified Wednesday in the trial of his successor, Mohamed Morsy, the country’s first democratically elected President, himself overthrown in a military coup in 2013.
Wednesday’s testimony in Cairo was one of Egypt’s many firsts since Mubarak’s toppling. In a country known for decades-long autocratic rule, one former President was pitted against another in court on live TV.
Mubarak got his chance to give his version of the events that led to his ouster. As in the past, he was flanked by his two sons, Gamal and Alaa. Last year, Mubarak was acquitted in what was labeled in 2011 as the “Trial of the Century,” in which he was implicated in the killing of hundreds of protesters in January and February 2011. All three had served time in prison after having been convicted on corruption charges. They entered the court as free men.
Mubarak vs. Morsy
The sons helped their father to the podium in court. Mubarak, now 90, appeared healthy. For most of his previous trial appearances as a defendant, the one-time ruler was wheeled in on a gurney, and he spent much of his detention at a military hospital. His hair is now gray, a departure from his signature pitch-black he maintained through 30 years in power and most of his time in detention.
Morsy, 67, was in court, but difficult to spot in the glass sound-proof cage filled with outlawed Muslim Brotherhood leaders in three colors of prison uniforms: white for defendants without conviction, blue for those serving time and red for those on death row. Since he was forced out of power in 2013, Morsy has been in maximum security prison with minimal access to lawyers and family visits.
As Wednesday’s testimony unfolded, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi appeared from Alexandria on a different TV station. He touted commercial and real estate projects spearheaded by the military he once led as defense minister under Morsy. He also led the coup against Morsy and has since won two presidential elections in an ongoing crackdown.
Nowhere to be seen were the hundreds of young politicians, lawyers, journalists and activists who remain in jail on a multitude of charges that include protesting, spreading false news, attempting to change the regime, engaging in violence and even terrorism. The government has maintained that all of those charges are criminal and not political. Amnesty International has called Egypt “an open air prison for critics” over its crackdown on freedom of expression.
Jailbreaks and revolution
Morsy’s trial concerns the early days of the revolution when mass jailbreaks occurred in January 2011 amid nationwide protests and clashes with police.
Morsy, once a parliamentarian for the Muslim Brotherhood, was one of thousands who benefited from the chaos. He phoned Al-Jazeera TV the night he walked out of prison, saying he didn’t know who opened the gates, and repeating: “We didn’t escape.”
Morsy was elected President in June 2012, but it was only after the 2013 coup against him that he was charged with collaborating with Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, Lebanese militant group Hezbollah to execute the mass jailbreak, charges he and the groups deny. He was sentenced to death but later granted a retrial.
A government-commissioned, fact-finding mission concluded in 2011 that some jailbreaks were inside jobs carried out by prison guards – confirming a belief many Egyptians had at the time – while others were attacked by gunmen.
Since then, the popular narrative has changed. The uprising turned from an organic movement that represented rage and desperation into a conspiracy orchestrated by foreign agents and internal saboteurs. The theory once propagated by Mubarak’s supporters in 2011 is now treated as fact by the current government.
On Wednesday, Mubarak spelled it out. He testified that hundreds of men crossed the border from Gaza in 2011 to break Hezbollah, Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood members out of prison and shoot people from rooftops in public squares during the uprising. He was convicted but later acquitted of charges that he ordered the killing of protesters in 2011.
Mubarak shunned questions about details and possible ties between the Muslim Brotherhood and alleged infiltrators. He told the court he needed permission from security agencies.
“These are issues that were not revealed before,” he said.
As Sisi has prevailed in political life, he did so on this day as well. Forty minutes into the dramatic court hearing, the live broadcast was cut short, giving way for more news on Sisi’s proclaimed achievements in infrastructure projects.