FEATURE-Egyptian army in a bind over Mubarak trial

Thu Jul 28, 2011 10:01am GMT
 

(Removes garble in paragraph 15)

* Mubarak's trial due to start on Aug. 3

* Protesters say army reluctant to try former commander

* Army seen putting its reputation before Mubarak's fate

By Edmund Blair

SUEZ, Egypt, July 28 (Reuters) - An effigy hanging from a lamppost shows the fate some protesters in the Egyptian port city of Suez would like to see meted out to former President Hosni Mubarak. But they don't believe the army will ever let it happen to their former commander.

"Our impression right now is that Mubarak is still protected by someone, maybe the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, maybe someone from outside. Some countries still protect him," said Mohamed Mahmoud, 33, a youth movement coordinator in Suez, one of the most violent spots in the uprising that unseated Mubarak.

Shortly after he spoke, dozens of protesters marched past Suez's burned-out police headquarters and on to a military barracks chanting slogans against the army for foot-dragging. Barbed wire and army vehicles blocked the road approaching it.

Mubarak's trial, set to start on Aug. 3, has put the army in a tight spot. It is squeezed on one side by protesters demanding the ousted president be held to account and on the other by conservative Gulf Arab states quietly pressing for Egypt not to humiliate a former ally, partly -- analysts say -- because this might set a dangerous precedent for their own rulers.

Officers privately admit the military has no appetite for trying the decorated veteran who led Egypt's air force in the 1973 war against Israel. Publicly, however, they insist they are not taking sides and it is in the hands of the judiciary.

Regardless of the army's discomfort, Mubarak's fate will be secondary to protecting the military's own reputation and securing its future role that could see it lurk on the political sidelines, in the same way the army did in Turkey, for years.

"They will not go down protecting Mubarak because the preservation of their own organisation and the institution of the military is more important to them. If that means throwing Mubarak under the bus, then I think that is something they are willing to do," said Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center.

"The question is: is that something they have to do or they feel they need to do at this point? I think that is still an open question," he said.

'WASTING TIME'

There may be ways to reduce any public humiliation, while still letting the judicial process proceed.

Mubarak, 83, has been in hospital in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh since April, when he was first questioned. He has already been spared, on health grounds, a move to the Cairo prison where his two sons and other former officials are held.

His illness could yet spare him a court appearance. Many Egyptians see his sickness as a ruse used to protect him.

Protester Mahmoud in Suez says the army may have another plan. "They just want to waste time until his death. That is the game," he said.

If convicted of involvement in killing protesters, the most serious charge facing Mubarak, he could face the death penalty.

Though protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square or Arbaein in central Suez may call for the gallows in their chants, ordinary Egyptians are not necessarily keen to see him hang.

But even if many do not wish him dead, they do want him to answer for what they regard as his abuse of power during 30 years in office. They accuse him of crushing opponents and letting his allies and a privileged elite act as if they were above the law.

Such views even hold for many who live in Mubarak's home town in the Nile Delta.

"They will try him like anyone else because the revolutionaries say if he is not tried they will overthrow the army. There has to be justice," said school administrator Fathi Rady, 52, tending plants in the town of Kafr Musailha.

But there are those in his hometown -- and elsewhere in Egypt -- who question the need to try him. They say the army is simply bowing to pressure from protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square who are extending the economic turmoil hurting Egyptians.

"If people in Tahrir ask for it, they will try him. But those guys (protesters) don't understand. People have to work. They are making trouble for the country," said Saeed Abdelaziz, 36, who works in the governorate's office but has a second job ironing clothes in the street where Mubarak once lived.

PRESSURE

While protesters push the army to put Mubarak in the dock, fellow Arabs -- notably wealthy Gulf states which have pledged billions of dollars in aid to Egypt -- have been leaning on the generals not to set an uncomfortable precedent in the region.

"What happens in Egypt has reverberations throughout the region," said Kamran Bokhari, an analyst at global intelligence firm STRATFOR. "The Gulf states know that and they would like to be able to keep any such trends in check."

One Egyptian official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, said Gulf states had made it clear they did not want to see Mubarak in court.

In particular he pointed to pressure from Saudi Arabia, which has given huge cash handouts to silence any grumbles among its own citizens and sent troops as part of a Gulf force to Bahrain when the monarchy there was challenged by protesters.

Kuwait's ambassador to Cairo, Rasheed Hamad Al Hamad, dismissed the idea of any official Gulf Arab policy to prevent Mubarak's trial. But he said: "There are people in the Gulf, ordinary people, they don't want to see any president in a bad situation like that."

Mubarak was the second Arab leader to fall after Tunisia's Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. But he is the first who could stand trial at home. Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia and was tried in absentia.

But Gulf states, while wielding leverage via their deep pockets, are not likely to exert the kind of pressure to stop a Mubarak trial if it would plunge Egypt further into political turmoil as it struggles to right the battered economy.

"They will press and continue to press, but they will calibrate it," said Bokhari.

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)

 
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