CAIRO — Mustafa Fathy is proud of his participation in the demonstrations that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubrak, so it's hard for him to admit that he's still got a soft spot for 83-year-old deposed leader, whose trial resumes Monday.
Fathy, 27, had even penned a farewell poem in case he died fighting pro-Mubarak forces in Tahrir Square. But something stirred inside him when he saw the only president he'd ever known looking wan and infirm on a hospital bed behind the bars of a cage in court on Aug. 3. It wasn't exactly sympathy, he said, but close.
"He's a criminal and he must receive punishment," Fathy said firmly, then broke into confession mode: "OK, I felt pity for him. I'm not going to lie. What can I say? Egyptians are too kind-hearted."
Like Fathy, millions of Egyptians agitated for Mubarak's speedy prosecution on charges he conspired to have protesters killed, stole public funds and profiteered during his 30 years in power. Reliable public opinion surveys show that holding the former regime accountable for its actions remains a top priority for a majority of Egyptians.
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Yet now that Mubarak is in court, many Egyptians are voicing reservations. Some are uncomfortable with the death penalty the charges carry. Some wonder whether it's productive to spend so much energy and money on a high-profile trial with elections looming in just two months. Still others advocate amnesty in order to show that revolutionary ideals don't include vengeance.
"I swear to God, I truly hate him, but when I saw him in court, I felt bad," confided Mahmoud Mohamed, 29, a physician. "I think he's guilty, but we have to let him go. We have to be better. Let's start with ourselves."
Once silent, Mubarak loyalists from the security forces and his now-defunct National Democratic Party are also finding their voice these days, chiding their countrymen for "humiliating" an elderly former head of state, an alleged cancer patient and decorated veteran. Their demands for clemency play right into the hearts of Egyptians who were force-fed decades of government propaganda depicting Mubarak as both pharaoh and father.
"He was a tyrant who committed so many injustices, but he was also a father figure to us," explained Ahmed Hussein, 23, a shop clerk who supported Mubarak's toppling. "I felt bad for him when I saw him in the cage. Yes, the regime hurt me. Yes, I suffered injustice, but still. Still."
Nearly two weeks have passed since Mubarak's first appearance in court was televised, and Egyptians are still parsing every detail: the hospital gurney, the bad dye job, the ashen face, and that familiar voice uttering what's become a popular catchphrase, "I completely deny all these accusations." Local newspapers report that teenagers are downloading the sound bite as their cell-phone ring tones.
"Mubarak didn't look like the war hero he claims to be. He looked more like a washed-up actor," sniped Mohamed Almansy Kandil, a columnist for the local Tahrir News.
Egyptian clerics, meanwhile, had a field day preaching a verse from the Quran that seemed tailor-made for the trial: "Our God, possessor of all sovereignty, You grant sovereignty to whomever You choose, You remove sovereignty from whomever You choose. You grant dignity to whomever You choose, and commit to humiliation whomever You choose."
Lest Egyptians be swayed by pity for Mubarak's reversal of fortune, local commentators are quick to remind them how billions of dollars in foreign aid never trickled down to the masses, how the security forces made arrests at will and without charge, how unemployment numbers skyrocketed, religious extremism flourished underground and Egypt seemed eternally beholden to Western interests.
The prominent Islamist-leaning columnist Fahmy Howeidy led a recent column with a translated report lauding Mubarak as a great friend and "strategic treasure" for Israel. Mubarak's close relationship with the United States and Israel was fodder for many chants, banners and songs during the revolution.
"I feel shame and disgust when I recall this history," Howeidy wrote in Shorouk newspaper. "Even if we're putting him on trial for other reasons, history's court will never forget this."
Still, trying Mubarak has inspired many conflicting emotions.
"I don't feel any sympathy for Mubarak. He's very guilty and he must be executed," said Adel Salahedin, a mild-mannered chemical engineer who's running for president as an independent. Then he paused to reconsider.
"Well, I don't really like execution, but I'd like to see him spend the rest of his life in solitary confinement," he added. "His wife, too."
In recent weeks, a pro-Mubarak crowd has cemented its hold on a small public plaza in front of a landmark mosque in the middle-class Cairo district of Mohandesseen. It's the opposite of Tahrir Square, the epicenter at anti-Mubarak sentiment, a place where supporters tape flowery apologies to Mubarak on fences. Graffiti in the area reads, "Yes to Mubarak!" and "Mubarak is in my heart."
Mubarak supporters gather by the dozens in the plaza almost nightly now, mostly content to hail their fallen president, wave a few flags and make sure their unpopular stance is counted in the new Egypt. Anti-Mubarak politicians worry that the gatherings are a sign that the formerly ruling National Democratic Party is trying to regroup ahead of elections scheduled for November.
"They're mostly respectable people, just National Democratic Party people desperate to save their interests. The thugs are with them, of course, but just for protection," said Waleed Mohamed, 36, a street vendor who sells the crowd Egyptian flags, but refuses to stock Mubarak memorabilia.
On a recent day, a tall, lanky Mubarak supporter approached Mohamed's stand in search of trinkets to show his loyalty to the man he still called "President." He glanced at the revolution T-shirts for sale and then skulked away, empty handed.
"They ask for Mubarak things. They tell me, 'I want Mubarak, he's No. 1,' " Mohamed said. "I just say, 'You love Mubarak, I don't.' I don't sell those things. It's a matter of personal freedom now."
(McClatchy special correspondent Refaat Ahmed contributed to this report.)
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