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The headlines of newspapers on sale in a subway station once called Mubarak, now renamed 'Martyrs', captured one of the most remarkable moments in modern Arab history: "The pharaoh in the cage of the accused. "
'The cage' is precisely how it sounds - a pen barricaded with metal bars. 'The pharaoh' is Hosni Mubarak, former war hero, president and strongman toppled by the epic protests that gathered in Tahrir Square in February, scheduled to face trial with his two sons, the former interior minister and six senior police officers. Anticipation rippled across Egypt where the revolution to overthrow him has proved far easier than building a new order.
In subway stations, libraries, schools and streets, there was awe and doubt at the trial of a figure whose power was once so distant and uncontested that a famous Egyptian novel simply called him the Big Man. "Who would have ever imagined that Mubarak would be tried?" asked Ahmed Abdullah, a mechanic, standing before a school once named after Mubarak, now bearing the name of Islam's first muezzin.
"Or his sons?" added a friend.
"It's so strange, " Abdullah replied.
Even the prospect of Mubarak's trial seemed to mark a new moment in the Arab world. Felled by a popular revolution, the scene of Mubarak standing before a judge may make revolts in Syria, Libya and Yemen more difficult to resolve, strongmen facing these uprisings more reluctant to leave. But few in Egypt, even those uneasy at an ailing 83-year-old man facing charges that carry the death penalty, worried about those implications. In a country long ruled by the arbitrary whims of the unaccountable, they felt something had changed. "We're a state of law and the law is being applied, " said Fathi, an architect.
About 600 people will be allowed into the courtroom guarded by 5, 000 soldiers, 50 tanks and armored vehicles. For the crowds outside, officials said they'd set up monitors to watch the proceedings, broadcast nationwide. Yet, the military council of 19 generals leading Egypt since the revolution seemed loath to put their former commander in a courtroom. Many speculated the generals hoped he might die before the date arrived. In a reflection of the frustration growing toward an opaque council, doubts remained that Mubarak would actually appear. "They'll keep delaying it, " said Afaf Ali, a student at the Egyptian Public Library - which once bore Mubarak's name. "No one in government wants to try him. " The prospect of the trial seemed to incarnate all the conflicting emotions about Egypt's revolution - that it had gone too far or not far enough. In Martyrs' Station, Ahmed Sayyid was reflective. His words were neither a cry for vengeance, nor justice. "The only reason we want to try him is so he can serve as an example for the person who follows him, " he said. "There is a limit to power. "
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