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Mubarak Trial Resumes Amid 'Circus' Atmosphere

JACKI LYDEN, host: This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, we continue our look at how the September 11th terrorist attacks changed our nation and hear from a doctor who treated victims on the Pentagon site. That's in just a few minutes. But first, we'll have analysis of the latest developments in the Middle East and North Africa. Today, the trial of former President Hosni Mubarak resumes in Egypt after violent scuffles broke out inside and outside of the courtroom earlier this week.

We'll also explore why relations have soured between two key regional powers: Turkey and Israel. And we'll also get an update on Libya, where loyalists to Gadhafi regimes have fled to neighboring Niger. Joining us to talk about these issues is NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson. She's covering the Mubarak trial, and she joins us from Cairo. Welcome to the show, Soraya.


LYDEN: And also with us is Abderrahim Foukara. He's the Washington Bureau Chief for Al Jazeera International, and he joins us here in our Washington, D.C. studio. Welcome back to the program.

ABDERRAHIM FOUKARA: Always a pleasure to be on the show.

LYDEN: Soraya, let's start with you, please. Hosni Mubarak's trial restarted today. On Monday, scuffles marred proceedings inside the courtroom and outside between pro and anti-Mubarak protestors. Let's take a listen for a moment.


LYDEN: Soraya what's the latest today? Obviously, it has been a difficult atmosphere in that courtroom and outside on the streets.

NELSON: I think a circus atmosphere would be a really good way to describe it. (unintelligible) that's how the judge is feeling.


LYDEN: Thought I'd let you say that. Is it really?


NELSON: So, yeah, what happened - the testimony has ended for the day. The judge is in deliberations at the moment. But today, well, we didn't have the scuffles and the drama, in that sense, from Monday. What did happen today is that they ended up arresting the first witness who testified today for perjury. And basically, this was the prosecution response to families who are getting increasingly frustrated with the fact that their star witnesses were all basically back-tracking on what they had said before, and that is that the interior minister and Hosni Mubarak had issued the orders for shoot to kill on the protestors.

And, of course, that is the key charge for which he faces the death - or both of them face the death penalty, if convicted.

LYDEN: Abderrahim, how do the problems affecting this trial reflect on the current Egyptian regime administration and the people in power?

FOUKARA: Well, Soraya described it as a circus, and it is a circus. It's a distraction. But it's a crucial distraction. A lot of Egyptians feel - and people beyond Egypt feel that it's a crucial distraction. Whatever happens in this trial - and the likelihood is that it will take a long time to sort itself out. But the final outcome will provide a pointer which way Egypt is going. And whatever way - whichever way Egypt ends up going, the feeling is that the rest of the region ends up going.

If Mubarak is - gets the death sentence or life, then obviously, for a lot of Egyptians, a lot of Arabs, that will be a vindication of their pressure to see justice done. And that would have ramifications for other countries going through the trials and tribulations of the so-called Arab Spring.

LYDEN: And justice done - I think both of you might agree - in a way that upholds civil society. Soraya, a lot of people were upset last month when a judge suddenly said that the trial would not be televised. Are they worried that this whole procedure, if not done properly, does somehow betray the promise of what went on in the streets earlier this year?

NELSON: They're very much concerned about that. And, in fact, protestors are calling for another protest this Friday to talk about getting the revolution back on track, as they're referring to it. There is great concern that this trial is going to end up white-washing what happened, especially for the families of some 850 protestors, but even, in a larger sense, for the people who've gone out there week after week to try and bring change to make this a more Democratic society.

There is a great fear that if this trial isn't done properly, that that will go away - I mean, that basically, they go back to the old system and some new dictator takes his place.

LYDEN: If you're just joining us, I'm Jacki Lyden, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. And we're talking about what's happening this week in North Africa and the Middle East with NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson and Abderrahim Foukara, Washington Bureau Chief for Al Jazeera International. I'd like to turn now to what's happening between Turkey and Israel. Now, as you know, these two countries had been staunch allies. But this week, Turkey announced it was totally suspending all trade, military and defense ties with Israel. And this, of course, comes after Israel refused to apologize for a raid last year on a flotilla that was headed toward Gaza.

That raid killed nine Turkish pro-Palestinian activists, one of them an American citizen. So, Abderrahim, what is Turkey saying here? This is a stunning turnaround. And what does the move mean for Israel, and can anything repair these tattered relations?

FOUKARA: Well, it's certainly a huge problem for Israel, because Turkey - in addition to being a member of NATO - has also been Israel's main ally in the Muslim world - other than Egypt under Mubarak, obviously. But the fact that the Turks - although they've suspended military and commercial relations with the Israelis. They've also previously withdrawn their ambassador from Israel. The fact that they haven't actually gone so far as to say we're severing diplomatic relations with the Israelis means that, you know, the crisis is not final, that at some point, they do hope that things would go back to normal.

How long is that going to take, we don't know. But it's interesting - two things. It's interesting that, you know, these moves on the part of the Turks have come at a time when we've been hearing here in the United States, for example, the report about Gates telling - when he was secretary of defense, telling the Obama administration that the United States is not getting its values worth out of it's alliance with Israel.

It's also interesting that the Turks have made this step at a time when their role - their influence in Syria doesn't seem to be quite yielding any results. And we know that the Turks have, for some time now, been trying to consolidate their influence in the Arab world through Syria, using Syria as a stepping stone. But as I said, the fact that they haven't actually said that they're severing their relations with the Israelis means that the game is not match and set yet.

LYDEN: And some of the attaches are still in place, military attaches commercial people. Soraya, what about the U.S. role, here? How has the U.S. responded, and is there much that the U.S. can do to play a significant part in trying to amend this rift?

NELSON: It's difficult to say. I mean, certainly the U.S. has been several steps behind with what's happened with the Arab Spring, for example. And certainly the attitude or the mood on - outside of Israel is as hard as inside of Israel. But outside of Israel is not one that's very predisposed to what Americans say or don't say. I mean, just to give you an example, just and aside from today, one of our staff was out there trying to get some interviews in front of the courthouse. And the minute we said American media, they just turned their noses up and walked away.

This is the kind of thing that never happened here before. And certainly, in Egypt, they're not necessarily taking their cues from the United States on how they should have their - or forge their future relations with Israel under a - or I should say in a post-Mubarak era.

LYDEN: Let's turn our attention to Libya. Loyalists to Moammar Gadhafi crossed the border into Niger and - in armed convoys. Among the group was Gadhafi's security chief and 12 other regime officials. But Gadhafi is still at large, or somewhere, Soraya. What does this move signal for Libya, that there was yet another defection from people close to him?

NELSON: Well, it certainly was a mood enhancer or booster for the rebel fighters. I mean, they're about to take on perhaps the most difficult fight of this entire revolution of theirs, and that is that they need to go after Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte and they need to go after Bani Walid, which is a key sort of city or town, if you will, that lies between Sirte and between Sahba and the south and the border, in fact.

And so it's something that they're hoping will persuade the forces that are left behind, the pro-Gadhafi forces that are left behind, to lay down their arms peacefully rather than engaging in what's going to be - or what's been described to me, anyways - a very bloody battle.

And so that's one thing, but another piece of news that did come out today is - at least according to rebels - they claim that they have Gadhafi surrounded, that they're no more than 40 miles away from where he is and that they're prepared to kill him or detain him.

LYDEN: I just want to say, quickly, something about migrants who've been trapped there. Is that a dire situation for people from sub-Saharan Africa?

NELSON: Absolutely. It's a very bad time to be somebody who looks like they're darker-skinned or coming from more southern countries, if you will. Certainly, there have been mercenaries who've been brought in from other countries. I mean, I think that's more or less an agreed upon fact by all sides of the equation.

But the problem is you also had a lot of people working there in Libya, whether it was in the oil sector or the services sector, you know, and they're trapped. They're unable to get out and they have not necessarily been treated very well by the Libyans who are now taking control.

There's a payback, if you will, and this is something that causes great concern, I think, not only for the African nations whose citizens are in trouble, but also outside for people who are supporting the new Libyan transitional council.

LYDEN: Thanks, Soraya. And just quickly, Abderrahim, can you please say something about the fact that documents were found linking the CIA to the rendition of terrorism suspects to Libya? Just a reaction into that.

FOUKARA: Well, I mean, that's obviously raising a lot of eyebrows in the region. More than raising eyebrows. It's a lot of people who were very suspicious about what sort of relations the West was having with Colonel Gadhafi when he was still in power. The fact that he had leaders such as Tony Blair. He had the George Bush administration and others who worked very hard to rehabilitate Gadhafi into the international community. And have him working, these countries working against him now, it's not a surprise that these revelations have been made.

LYDEN: Thank you so much, Abderrahim Foukara, Washington Bureau Chief for Al Jazeera International, who joined us here in our Washington studio, and our colleague, NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson from Cairo. It was great to be live with you both.

FOUKARA: Good to be with you.

NELSON: Thank you.


LYDEN: Just ahead, following the September 11th attacks, Americans gave up some of their civil liberties in the name of safety. Ten years later, many Americans wonder whether that was the right decision and whether an infringement on civil liberty has gone too far. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.