CAIRO - Egyptian authorities Wednesday set Aug. 3 as the start of former President Hosni Mubarak's trial on criminal charges - a firm date that will help make real for many in this country his stunning fall from once-untouchable strongman to an infirm octogenarian stripped of power and possessions.
Many believe the sight of Mubarak shuffling into court also will send tremors through other Arab nations where unelected rulers are battling varying degrees of popular rebellion. Whether the trial will begin on time is an open question, however.
Egyptian Attorney General Mahmoud Abdel Maguid told news outlets this week that Mubarak's health had deteriorated so much that he could not be transferred to Cairo's notorious Tora prison from a military hospital in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, where he has been undergoing treatment since reportedly suffering a heart attack April 12.
His condition has been a mystery since, though Maguid said one of the concerns authorities had was that the Tora prison hospital didn't have a fully equipped intensive-care unit.
According to the state-owned MENA news agency, Mubarak, his sons, Gamal and Alaa, and a businessman, Hussein Salem, will face charges that they used their positions to illicitly enrich themselves and others.
Mubarak, 83, also will be tried on charges that he conspired with former Interior Minister Habib el-Adly and others in the killings of protesters during the 18 days of demonstrations that ended with Mubarak's ouster, MENA said. At least 846 people were killed and more than 6,400 were wounded.
The announcement of a trial date appeared timed to quell public criticism of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took over after Mubarak's resignation. Activists complain that the military council has acted slowly and in secrecy to prosecute former regime figures, while ordinary protesters have been sentenced to prison terms after military trials that lasted only an hour.
So far, access to court proceedings against members of the former regime has been restricted, which angers Egyptian activists who seek a public reckoning for the regime's long list of alleged human-rights violations and misuse of Egypt's funds.
"The investigations are kept secret and the trial as a whole is treated as top secret," said Ahmed Helmi, a lawyer and founding member of a group of legal scholars compiling evidence against the former regime. "We can't see if the process is legally correct or not; witnesses are not allowed in."
To date, the only major regime conviction is of Adly, the former interior minister, who was sentenced to 12 years in prison for corruption. He still faces the more serious charge of ordering the killings of protesters as head of the nation's feared police and security apparatus. His next court date is June 26.
Few details of the charges against Mubarak have been released. In the corruption case, prosecutors told the Al Masry Al Youm newspaper that Mubarak allowed Salem to seize hundreds of thousands of acres in the most prestigious tourist areas of Sharm el-Sheikh.
The newspaper's report added that Mubarak, Salem, a former petroleum minister, and other officials enabled Salem to obtain more than $2 billion illegally by awarding Salem's company the contract to sell discounted Egyptian natural gas to Israel.