Judge: What do you say to the charges you are facing?
Mubarak: I deny them completely
These were ousted president Hosni Mubarak's first words to an Egyptian court today, echoed in turn by family members and former acoltytes, all of them facing charges of ordering the killing of protesters and indulging in staggering acts of corruption.
The ousted president lay in the court cage flanked by his two sons, Alaa and Gamal Mubarak, the former interior minister Habib El Adly, and six of his top former officers -- all radiating health and arrogance. Just one figure was missing, Hussein Salem, under house arrest in Spain and being tried in absentia.
The huge courtroom had space for at least a thousand people but was half-empty. Those in attendance seemed to be mainly police officers, some in plainclothes, the rest in more formal wear.
The seated area around the court's cage was surrounded by an iron fence and entirely inhabited by policemen who deliberately blocked the view for other spectactors.
Even a close look at the cage revealed every defendant except Mubarak, his two sons standing beside him taking care to shield him from view.
They weren't entirely successful; state TV cameras were able to capture close-ups of the former president reclined on his gurney, a disdainful look on his face, his hair once again dyed jet black. The 83 year-old chief defendant didn't look very sick or depressed after all.
It was more than an hour into the proceedings before those in attendance -- and the millions watching on television -- finally heard the voice of the ousted president, his case being read after those of former interior minister Habib El-Adly and his one-time officers.
"Mohamed Hosni El-Sayed Mubarak, are you present?" asked the judge.
Everyone stood to see where the answer would come from.
"Present, your honour," growled the old man, with as much determination and pride as he could muster.
There were only a few journalists in the courtroom to see it, and those present had to surrender their cameras and mobiles beforehand.
The legal teams of the defendants totalled around 50 people. Of the lawyers representing revolution martyrs and those injured in the uprising, only 80 were allowed -- the majority were not.
Just four of those who have filed law suits against Mubarak were allowed inside the courtroom but they were hardly noticeable in the high drama of the occasion.
Strict and grim-faced, the judge, Ahmed Refaat, started the session with a brief statement:
"Egypt is a great country and deserves this historic moment. We are all very proud to be here."
He asked everyone to remain seated and silent unless asked otherwise and then the court called the names of defendants and the lawyers representing them.
Mubarak's lawyer, Fareed El-Dib, asked for a copy of the investigations into the former president and then requested he be tried separately from former interior minister El-Adly. The court only recently decided to combine the two trials and the request for a separate trial was repeated by several of the other lawyers.
Lawyers on both sides also requested the attendance of field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, head of Egypt's ruling military council, and also Omar Suleiman, former vice president and once head of the Egyptian intelligence service.
The two cases were called separately.
Habib El-Adly's lawyer, Mohammed Abdel Fatah, claimed El-Adly and his assistant Ismail El Shair had nothing to do with the killing of protesters. He insisted it was the former interior minister who had requested an open trial to be able to prove their innocence to the public, claiming many of the incidences of murder did not take place.
The polished, clear delivery of Fatah, and his colleagues on the defence teams, stood in stark contrast to the lawyers representing the families of the martyrs who seemed disorganised and slightly confused in comparison.
Speaking in the name of those killed by his alleged orders, the latter demanded that Mubarak be kept in Tora prison hospital during the trial.
They also called on media and communications companies as witnesses with the aim of questioning them to discover how mobile phones and the internet were blocked on 28 January and who gave the relevant orders. Others considered Egyptian state media as a partner in the crime of killing protesters, demanding they be included in the case.
The prosecution accused Mubarak of killing protesters and corrupt practices in international gas deals and abusing his position to acquire valuable properties.
Mubarak's case was adjourned until 15 August when more witnesses will be heard. El-Adly's case was adjourned until tomorrow.
The distance between the courtroom and the main entrance of the northern Cairo Police Academy was over one kilometre and only police cars were allowed inside, meaning everyone else in attendance was transferred by bus. Inside the academy grounds, army trucks, hundreds of police and Egyptian special forces -- including the notorious 777 special ops unit -- lined the approach.
Outside in the streets of the northern Cairo district of Tagammu El-Khames, dozens of martyrs' families and activists stood chanting "where is the justice?" and "thieves and murderers". Many of the journalists, lawyers and families of victims were enraged they were not allowed inside the courtroom to see the proceedings.
Nearby were dozens of pro-Mubarak supporters weaning t-shirts splashed with slogans: "I am Egyptian and against insulting the symbol of the nation," was written on some; "Sons of Mubarak," read others. These demonstrators were enraged too, but for quite different reasons. Furious that Mubarak's trial was finally underway they threated to break into the compound and free the former president from his cage.
Before long they were involved in bitter clashes, both with security forces and the anti-Mubarak crowds. It escalated into a fight between factions, rocks and bottles being hurled by both sides. Ahram Online saw seven people injured, one of them a cameraman for a TV news channel. The health ministry later announced 53 had been wounded in the clashes.
Fighting, though, was sporadic, fizzling out as attention turned to the massive screen erected outside the academy which showed events inside the courtroom.
"It's going to be a long trial but at least he is in jail," said a passer-by as we left. "No one knows what will happen next."
It was hard to tell whether he sympathised with the aged dictator or with the families of the hundreds dead, but he was surely right in what he said.