CAIRO — Bed-ridden and dressed in prison whites, gray hair poking through his familiar jet-black dye job, the 83-year-old ousted president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, made a stunning court appearance here Wednesday to answer charges of corruption and plotting to kill protesters who demanded his resignation.
"I totally deny all charges," Mubarak said through a microphone.
It was a watershed moment in modern Middle Eastern history: a seemingly invincible man who epitomized a generation of Arab autocrats, a stalwart U.S. ally who ruled unchecked for nearly 30 years over the most populous Arab nation, wheeled into a steel defendants' cage in a makeshift courtroom at a police academy that once bore his name.
It was a sign of Mubarak's long and all-encompassing grip on the country _ heroic pictures of him once seemed to hang from nearly every wall and store counter in Egypt _ that outside the courtroom, hundreds of Egyptians gathered both to cheer and condemn the interim military government for putting him on the stand, on charges that could carry the death penalty.
Mahmoud el Khouly, a 28-year-old engineer who received a gunshot wound to his right foot from police who were battling protesters on the third day of last winter's revolution, stood among a crowd of anti-Mubarak protesters, leaning on his cane. His doctor had ordered him to remain in bed until his very serious wound healed, but Khouly had come anyway.
“I came here to see Mubarak in that cage," he said. "I am happy and waiting to see him sentenced to death. . . .
“I am in pain, I disobeyed my doctor’s orders, but I couldn’t bear to miss such a satisfying scene."
On the other side of a fragile police barricade that was guarding the academy, Mubarak supporters cheered the man and derided the revolutionaries who brought down the regime in 18 days of violent protests. Alongside Mubarak in the defendants' cage were his sons, Alaa and Gamal, former Interior Minister Habib el Adly and six former senior police officers. Another defendant, fugitive tycoon Hussein Salem, is in Spanish custody but prosecutors hope to extradite him.
All pleaded not guilty to all charges.
“This revolution destroyed all the heroes of Egypt: Mubarak, Hussein Salem, (former intelligence chief) Omar Suleiman," said Mohamed Saadawi, 45, a business owner who came at 5 a.m. carrying a poster of Mubarak. "Who is going to fight against Israel now?
“I refuse the humiliation of our national figures in such a way,” he went on, moments before picking up rocks to hurl at anti-Mubarak protesters.
The clashes outside the academy grew tense: Several Mubarak supporters attacked a McClatchy reporter and photographer, trying to block them from documenting the violence. Police officers stepped in to defend news crews that found themselves at the center of the melee.
Dozens of family members of victims of the revolution were denied entry to the courtroom despite pledges by justice officials that they'd be able to attend the trial. More than 850 Egyptians were killed and 8,000 injured in the uprising in January and February.
A few miles away in central Cairo, security forces cordoned off Tahrir Square, the heart of the protest movement, to keep demonstrators from returning. Around the square, shop owners and pedestrians eagerly watched the trial on small TV sets.
“I am so happy. This is a very happy day," said Ahmed Hamed, a nurse. "I feel like our dignity was maintained, and I don’t care if it’s real or not, I’m going to watch and enjoy every second of it."
Until Mubarak appeared in court Wednesday morning, many Egyptians had doubted that he'd show up for such an apparent humiliation. Loyalists had said for weeks that he was too ill to be transported to Cairo, the capital, from his hospital bed in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh, even as Egyptian health officials pronounced him in stable condition.
Prosecutors charged Mubarak, his sons, Salem and Adly of conspiring, planning and ordering police officers to kill protesters from Jan. 25 to Feb. 11 in order to defend the regime and remain in power. They're also accused of stealing state funds, money laundering and profiteering. Adly and the six former police officials are charged separately with participating in killing protesters.
Wednesday's was an opening session for the defendants to enter pleas and lawyers to make statements. The presiding judge, Ahmed Refaat, adjourned the conspiracy trial until Aug. 15. Adly and the six former police officials were due to reappear in court Thursday on the murder charges.
Court officials said Mubarak would remain in Cairo and would be treated at the International Medical Center near the police academy on the city's eastern outskirts.
Farid el Deeb, the lawyer who's defending the first president to stand trial in Egypt's history, said he'd ask 1,631 witnesses to testify, including Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the ruling military council and Mubarak's lifelong friend.
Adly's lawyer, Essam el Battawy, called on the judge to form a panel to investigate what he called "the impossibility" of witness accounts that police killed protesters.
The victims' lawyers called on prosecutors to add to the list of charges cutting Internet and phone lines during the first days of the revolution. If that happens, more defendants could land in the dock, including former Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif.
(Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondent Refaat Ahmed contributed to this article.)