CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's military ruler and one-time confidant of Hosni Mubarak failed to attend a court session Sunday that was expected to bring highly anticipated testimony about the ousted president's alleged role in the death of protesters and possibly offer insider revelations about the regime's final days.
The no-show by Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi was a major disappointment for Egyptians seeking to have the reckoning over the bloodshed reach to the highest levels. It also could reflect hesitation by Mubarak's former allies to face him in court and possibly shed embarrassing secrets.
The judge immediately requested Tantawi return to court Sept. 24.
The report on Egyptian State TV did not give a reason for Tantawi's absence in court. But a defense lawyer said Tantawi told the court he was ready to submit written testimony since he was dealing with the fallout after the storming of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo on Friday by protest mobs.
The trial is seen as a test between Egypt's traditional power structure and the impatience for clear breaks with the past seven months after Mubarak was toppled and power shifted to a military council.
Many Egyptians still see the ruling military as uneasy about putting one of their own on trial — Mubarak was previously commander of the air force and a pilot. There also is speculation that Tantawi and other high-ranking officials want to keep a distance from the proceedings, fearing they could be implicated in the crackdowns that left nearly 900 dead.
Mubarak is accused of complicity in the attacks. It is unprecedented for a court in Egypt to summon such high-level figures — particularly authorities from the highly secretive military and intelligence services.
Assem Qandil, a lawyer for one of the defendants tried along with Mubarak, said that Tantawi notified the court in a written statement that he couldn't show up because of the tensions after the embassy assault.
Qandil, who represents a former senior security official, said that Tantawi offered to send written testimony, but "the judge refused and reissued a request for Tantawi to show up in court."
Mubarak's trial depends heavily on accounts by Tantawi and other members of the former president's inner circle who are expected to testify in the coming days.
Among the others summoned by the court were chief of staff Sami Anan — the second highest-ranking figure on the military council — and Omar Suleiman, who was appointed vice president by Mubarak during the uprising and was his powerful intelligence chief. He is seen as a figure holding many of the regime's secrets.
The trial is scheduled to resume Tuesday with Suleiman expected to give testimony. The sessions are closed to the media and public. All reporting on the proceedings is banned.
Lawyers of victims' families have asked for Tantawi's testimony because he had suggested the army rejected the use of force against protesters.
Addressing a police cadet graduation ceremony in May, Tantawi said that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces convened in the middle of the uprising and decided: "No, we don't open fire on the people." But he didn't elaborate on who gave the orders for security forces to turn their weapons against protesters.
Mohammed Zarie, a lawyer for one of the victims' families, said before heading to the courtroom: "Tantawi knows it all."
Meanwhile, lawyers for Mubarak and other defendants' also asked for Tantawi's testimony in what could be an effort to further spread responsibility for the violence and measures such as blocking mobile phones and the Internet.
Tantawi was the former commander of the elite Republican Guards, which protects the president and his palaces. He was appointed chief commander of the armed forces in May 1991 and was considered one of Mubarak's most steadfast backers. A U.S. diplomatic cable, released by Wikileaks, reported Tantawi was known as "Mubarak's poodle" for his unwavering loyalty.
In a separate case, a group of Mubarak regime officials began trial on charges, including manslaughter, linked to the landmark Feb. 2 "camel battle" when riders on horses and camels charged into protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square. A total of 25 people face charges, but 22 defendants showed up in court.
Among those charged is Safwat el-Sherif, former secretary general of the ruling party, and former parliament speaker Fathi Serour.
The blitz — with riders wielding whips and swords — initially scattered the protesters but they quickly regrouped and wrestled some of the attackers from their mounts. It touched off one of the most violent days of the uprising, with protesters and Mubarak loyalists fighting in Tahrir Square and adjacent streets with rocks, firebombs and slabs of concrete.
State TV said that the judge imposed a ban on live broadcast of the session and ordered media crews to leave the courtroom.
Meanwhile, an Al Jazeera network, Al Jazeera Egypt Live, said that Egyptian security authorities stormed their offices.
The network reported on its Twitter account that authorities confiscated its broadcast devices.
On Wednesday, Egypt's military rulers froze new licenses for private satellite TV stations and said they would take steps against broadcasters considered to be inciting violence. Al Jazeera Egypt Live has applied for a license, but it has not been granted.
Activists say the media restrictions are reminiscent of the tight controls during Mubarak's regime.
- Hosni Mubarak