Protests Rage On As Mubarak Stands Trial

Originally published on August 5, 2011 2:25 pm

The trial of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who had served longer than any other ruler of Egypt in modern times, began Wednesday in Cairo. He is charged with ordering the killings of hundreds of protesters, and could receive the death penalty if convicted.

Host Michel Martin speaks with young Egyptian activist Wessam el-Deweny about seeing the once mighty Mubarak wheeled into the courtroom in a cage.

El-Deweny says the majority of Egyptians are happy to see the beginnings of justice. She accuses Mubarak of wasting public funds, murdering protestors and corrupting political life for the past 30 years. She notes that locals never even imagined that the Mubarak trial would air publicly on television.

El-Deweny acknowledges that the public is tiring of the demonstrations that raged for months, but many participants of the January revolution are happy to see some of their key demands being met. She asserts that many ministers and government officials have been replaced. Families of martyrs have been compensated and honored.

"Many of our demands are being achieved but many people cannot keep up with the speed of young revolutionaries," Wessam el-Deweny says.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, we'll take a look at a film based on the true story of a Nebraska police officer who paid a heavy price for exposing a human trafficking ring in Bosnia. The movie is called "The Whistleblower." It stars such heavyweights as Vanessa Redgrave and Oscar-winner Rachel Weisz. We'll talk to the director of the film - it's actually her first full-length feature - in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to go back to another international story that captured the world's attention last spring, those massive demonstrations that swept several regimes from power in the Middle East and North Africa. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was one of them. Now, the former president is in Cairo to stand trial. He's charged with ordering the killings of hundreds of protestors earlier this year during those mass demonstrations. The proceedings are being watched by 600 people inside the courtroom and televised live on Egyptian TV. Here are the words of the former president responding to the charges against him, translated by the BBC.

(SOUNDBITE OF BBC BROADCAST)

HOSNI MUBARAK: (Through translator) All these accusations, I deny them all. I have not committed any such crimes.

MARTIN: If convicted, former President Mubarak could receive the death penalty. Demonstrations both in support of and against the former president were held outside the courtroom. Meanwhile, protests have continued in Tahrir Square in recent weeks, and hundreds of thousands of Egyptians protested last Friday against what they believe is a transition to true democracy that is moving too slowly. We wanted to hear more, so we've called upon Egyptian activist Wessam el-Deweny. She is a 25-year-old researcher at Cairo University.

She said she protested in Tahrir Square at least four hours a day, and she was with us on the phone from Cairo on Wednesday. Thank you so much for joining us.

WESSAM EL-DEWENY: Yes. My pleasure.

MARTIN: What is your reaction to seeing former President Mubarak stand trial, especially in such a dramatic fashion? And I should mention that, like other prisoners, evidently he's being held in a cage in the courtroom, but he arrived on a hospital gurney, appearing to be rather ill.

EL-DEWENY: It was a historical day for all Egyptians. We think it's great to see the beginning of justice - real justice to be seen that Mubarak and his cronies will stand in a real trial and be tried for all the crimes they committed against Egyptians. I mean, he was, of course, treated favorably, being the former Egyptian president, but still, he was standing behind the cage. He wore the white overall that most accused persons wear in court, and he stood beside his sons and his interior ministry like any other accused people. And it was really great for us to see all this happening today.

MARTIN: Now, there were demonstrations in support of him. How do you interpret that?

EL-DEWENY: Well, a few people still feel that he was a leader of our country. They don't really see the crimes he committed against his own nation, how many participants - decent participants he killed in the January 25 revolution. I mean, those people are just sympathizing with him out of human feelings and emotions because he's been our ruler for the past 30 years, but they do not really represent the rest of our nation. The majority of Egyptians really feel happy that they will see him standing and being tried for his crimes, for we think public funds for killing peaceful protestors, for corrupting political life in the country for the past 30 years.

MARTIN: There are reports that the public is growing tired of the demonstrations, that some people are more anxious now about things like the economy and their overall security and that there's some - the public is divided about whether these demonstrations continue to be useful and whether they support them or not. Can you shed some light on this? Do you think that that's true, that some people don't believe the demonstrations should continue to be happening and are getting frustrated, that there's a sort of division in the public around this?

EL-DEWENY: It's true now everyone is growing tired. Many people are thinking this maybe too much happening and within the past six months so far, and they think we should take it easy and wait and take things slowly. But however, many of us who participated in the January 25 revolution would like to see the demands of the revolution take place, and we believe that the protests and sit-ins, if they are following peaceful methods, they will act as a pressure tool on the governing regime right now, which is the military council, to achieve the demands of the revolution. And it has worked, since the July 8 sit in, so far, achieved many of the demands of the revolution that we were calling for.

Many of the ministers in the government were changed with new ones. The families of martyrs received the honors and were compensated. We are now seeing the Mubarak trial publicly on - aired on TV, and we would have never imagined this to take place before, and because the military council who's not so eager to have this trial in this fashion. So, many of our demands are being achieved, but yet many people cannot keep up with the speed of young revolutionaries, and they think that this may be affecting the economy right now. But we believe some sacrifices should be made for us to see justice served and to see the demands of the revolution achieved.

MARTIN: Wessam el-Deweny is a researcher at Cairo University. She's an activist. She's been participating in demonstrations throughout the spring and the summer, and she was kind enough to join us on the phone from Cairo. Thank you so much for joining us.

EL-DEWENY: Yes, my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.