CAIRO — Egypt was bracing Tuesday for the start of its trial of the century even as the most anticipated defendant — toppled former President Hosni Mubarak — was likely to be a no-show for what Egyptian officials said were health reasons.
Mubarak, the 83-year-old former air force pilot who ruled Egypt with an iron fist for 30 years until a bloody, 18-day revolution forced him out in February, is due to face charges Wednesday along with 10 others, including his two sons, of stealing public funds and conspiring to kill protesters.
Demonstrators have demanded that Mubarak and top members of his former regime be prosecuted, and the mere picture of one of the Arab world's biggest strongmen standing in the defendants' specially constructed steel cage at the courtroom at Cairo's police academy would be a stunning moment in the region's history.
"I want to see Mubarak standing trial. He and his government members should be punished for what they did to us," said Hamdy Khalaf, a farmer whose cousin, 15-year-old Abdalla Shehata, died a few months after receiving a bullet to the skull amid demonstrations on Jan. 19. "They killed my cousin, and they should be prosecuted just like any criminal accused of murder."
Never miss a local story.
Although Egyptian health officials say that Mubarak, who's being treated at a hospital in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh for ailments that officials even now won't disclose, is in stable condition and transporting him to Cairo for trial poses no threat to his health, several Egyptian officials said the former president won't appear for at least the start of the trial.
Several lawyers of victims of the revolution violence expressed concern that Mubarak's no-show could lead to more instability.
"I am worried about his absence. It could trigger angry protests by the families of the victims," said Ahmed Atta, a lawyer who represents 13 victims' families.
As Mubarak remained holed up in Sharm el Sheikh, protests have continued in the six months since his resignation, with many demonstrators demanding punishment for any member of his regime who was involved in the shootings of protesters. Mubarak, his sons and fugitive tycoon Hussein Salem are accused of plotting with former Interior Minister Habib el Adly and senior police officials to cause the deaths of more than 850 protesters and injuries to some 8,000 others in brutal confrontations with police officers.
The trial could divide Egypt between those eager to see the former president face justice and others who don't want to a sick old man humiliated.
There isn't much love lost, however, between ordinary Egyptians and the other men expected to share the defendants' cage:
_ Gamal Mubarak, 47, the former president's younger son, first joined the government in 2000 when his father appointed him to the No. 2 post of his ruling National Democratic Party. In that role he rapidly became known as the party's most powerful figure.
Egypt's business community cheered him for introducing economic reforms that attracted billions of dollars in foreign investment, but intellectuals and opposition figures loathed him. Hosni Mubarak was widely thought to be grooming Gamal to succeed him, which added to the fury of protesters, who rejected the idea of a dynasty.
_ Alaa Mubarak, the other son, never participated in Mubarak's regime but remains as hated as his father and brother. He managed to build a filthy reputation for corruption within the Egyptian business community.
Both sons were arrested shortly after their father stepped down; they remain in custody in the maximum security Tora Prison south of Cairo.
_ Adly, who oversaw Egypt's police department as the country's longest-serving interior minister, was appointed in 1997 after a terrorist attack killed 58 foreign tourists in the southern city of Luxor. Adly, who previously headed the reviled State Security Department, which was notorious for torture, already has been tried for abusing his post, stealing public funds and money laundering, and sentenced to 12 years in jail.
_ Six of Adly's top aides and heads of various police departments are charged in the deaths of protesters: Gen. Ahmed Ramzy, Gen. Adly Fayed, Hassan Abdel Rahman, Ismaiel el Sha'er, Osama el Marasy and Omar el Faramawy. Some are thought to have fired weapons on demonstrators themselves.
_ Salem is a co-owner of the giant East Mediterranean Gas Co., which exports Egyptian natural gas to Israel at prices that are said to be significantly lower than international prices, and includes the Egyptian government and several Israeli businessmen as shareholders.
Salem, who holds Spanish nationality, was arrested in Spain on an international warrant and will be tried in absentia until he's extradited.
Several legal experts said that the charges, if proved, could easily put the defendants on death row. Egyptian criminal law allows for death by hanging, which often is applied in murder and treason cases.
(Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For more international news visit McClatchy's World page.