CAIRO — Not even an hour into the third day of the trial of deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a fistfight broke out in court Monday and insults flew between his supporters and detractors as an exasperated judge tried to restore order to the chaotic proceedings.
This time, no cameras recorded the melee — the result of a judge's order to bring a sense of decorum to a trial that continues to whip up Egyptians' emotions and result in violence both inside and outside the courtroom. Mubarak, his two sons, Gamal and Alaa, and senior former security officials are on trial in connection with the deaths of protesters who participated in the 18-day uprising that toppled the old regime.
After Chief Judge Ahmed Refaat repeatedly called for recesses to restore order, lawyers representing the dead protesters and their families accused the judicial panel of not being strict enough to control the highly charged environment. The dozens of attorneys involved in the case complained that the continued violence and disorder could torpedo one of the most important legal challenges in Egypt's modern history.
The chaotic scene delayed and overshadowed the first witness testimony, a widely anticipated moment after the first two court sessions focused on procedures.
Never miss a local story.
"If the judge took a break every half hour because of the lack of organization and control, this trial would take years," said Ahmed Gamal, a lawyer representing one of the dead protesters. "They (judges) are either happy with the chaos or they can't handle such a responsibility."
Clashes erupted outside the court as angry relatives of slain protesters demanded authorities allow live television coverage of the trial. Supporters of Mubarak, cordoned off in a separate area to prevent their clashing with detractors as on previous occasions, also turned on the police with projectiles and shouting. Television footage of the crowd outside the court showed bloodied bystanders and charging riot police.
The scene was just as tense inside the court. As soon as Mubarak, 83, was wheeled into the steel defendants' cage on a hospital bed, a woman in black unfurled a large banner demanding justice for police officers who died defending his regime. The black-clad woman, the mother of a policeman who died in the revolt, ignored the judge as she unleashed a string of insults at the protesters' lawyers.
The lawyers responded by berating the court's security personnel for allowing her into the room with a banner affixed to wooden poles, which the attorneys said could be used as weapons. Most attendees undergo stringent security procedures, including head-to-toe pat downs and the confiscation of cell phones, laptop computers and recording devices.
As soon as the judge called his first recess, fistfights broke out between lawyers defending Mubarak and others who accused him and his cronies of murder in the deaths of more than 850 protesters. Security officers restrained one man and dragged him out of the courtroom. Refaat, the chief judge, grew increasingly impatient with his unruly audience, twice shouting in court and also ordering the removal of disruptive attendees.
Neither Mubarak nor the other defendants said anything in court other than to confirm their presence when asked.
Once order was restored, the judge called the first witness, Police Gen. Hussein Said Mousa, an engineer who served as head of the wireless communication unit of the central security department during the uprising. He's already been sentenced to two years in prison for destroying communication evidence, though he said his involvement "had nothing to do with communications between members of the government or police force during the revolution."
Mousa's testimony, which continued for more than two hours because of interruptions and frequent recesses, focused on defendant Gen. Ahmed Ramzy, the former head of Central Security. Ramzy's agency dispatched thousands of baton-wielding, tear gas-spraying riot police to beat back the protesters as they marched toward Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo.
"General Ramzy's orders were firm and clear: Use every possible way to deal with protesters," Mousa testified.
"As far as I know, central security personnel are normally armed with bats, shields, tear gas, and birdshot rifles," Mousa continued. "Yet General Ramzy ordered the reinforcing of central security personnel stationed around the interior ministry with machine guns and live ammunition." He added that the leadership sent the weapons via ambulance because protesters were attacking police vans at the time.
However, Mousa stressed, he had no firsthand knowledge of the orders and said he'd gleaned the information only through his access to internal police communications such as "randomly listening to wireless communication between officers or talks between his fellow operation officers at the department."
Mousa gave the same answer again and again when questioned about other interior ministry departments or officials other than Ramzy: "This is not my specialty. I don't know anything about it."
Mousa denied hearing any direct order to use live ammunition or shoot to kill.
"Officers were told to assess their situations and act upon their personal assessments," he told the court.
As the session dragged on well past nightfall, with the frequent outbursts and recesses, attorneys grumbled that the trial was embarrassing Egypt in front of the world.
"It took more than two hours for one witness, and Mubarak's lawyer demanded the testimony of 1,600 witnesses," said Ayman Abdelrahman, a lawyer representing 34 protesters. "If the trial continues like this, then we're still at the beginning of the longest trial in human history."
(Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent. Hannah Allam contributed to this story from Cairo.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY