Cairo: Hosni Mubarak, on trial for his life, is ferried to court by helicopter from a Presidential hospital suite. His sons and co-defendants swagger in wearing designer track suits and no handcuffs. His security chief is treated with near reverence by police in the courtroom.
For activists in Egypt, the scenes only deepen their feeling that the authoritarian system the ousted President oversaw remains largely in place, almost a year since the 18-day uprising that toppled him.
When Mubarak`s trial began five months ago, many hoped it would bring not only punishment but a clear sense of victory for a movement that aimed to wipe the slate clean and start again.
Instead, it has boiled down to a bare-knuckled showdown between supporters and foes of the "revolution," reflecting the tensions that have been gripping the country.
Those divisions were clear in court Tuesday as Mubarak`s defense began its arguments. His chief lawyer, Farid el-Deeb, went for maximum effect with flowery language depicting him as an unjustly maligned victim who tried to improve Egypt during 29 years in power.
"This man before you, who is 83, has been fatigued and burdened by ailments and mauled by the malice of cunning people," el-Deeb said.
"He is looking to your justice to save him from the oppression that surrounds him from every direction, after his reputation and history have been targeted by tongues and pens."
The courtroom erupted when he said that Mubarak in fact supported the revolution. El-Deeb quoted from a letter he said Mubarak wrote to his lifetime friend Ahmed Shafiq — who was prime minister at the time of the uprising — saying that protesters were exercising their right to stage peaceful protests but were infiltrated by criminals and Islamists who destroyed public property and challenged the regime`s "legitimacy."
"Lies, lies!" and "Execution for Mubarak!" screamed the lawyers representing the families of protesters killed by police during the revolution.
They rushed at el-Deeb and nearly set upon him, but court police quickly moved to keep them back.
Mubarak, who has worn an unwaveringly grim expression ever since the trial began on Aug. 3, looked content as el-Deeb praised him. For the first time in the trial, he sat in a wheelchair in the courtroom cage where the defendants are kept, rather than lying on a hospital gurney as he has in previous sessions.
Mubarak, his former security chief Habib el-Adly and four top security officers are charged with complicity in the killing of hundreds of protesters and could face the death penalty if convicted. Mubarak`s sons Alaa and Gamal, along with their father, are charged with corruption in the same trial, a crime that would carry a prison sentence.
But the near-melee over el-Deeb`s speech gave a peek into the issue running under the surface of the trial: what the revolution has really meant for Egypt.
That issue has polarized Egyptian politics since Mubarak`s Feb. 11 ouster and the takeover of the reins of power by army generals widely believed to be beholden to him, led by his loyal Defense Minister of 20 years, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi.
Many of the activists who engineered the anti-Mubarak protests see the generals as just an extension of their former patron`s regime with no interest in bringing significant change. Notably, the military only ordered the arrest of the former president and his two sons after mass protests demanding that they be brought to justice.
Activists also charge that the generals have methodically tried to divert attention away from the revolution`s main goals — freedom, democracy and social justice — and instead decreed a cumbersome transition, allowing Islamist parties to dominate the political landscape and missing what they see as a historic chance to become a truly democratic state.
At the same time, the generals have gone to great lengths to discredit protest leaders and capitalize on Egyptians` longing for stability by demonizing the revolutionaries as foreign agents and troublemakers while projecting an image of themselves as the nation`s true patriots.
Activists, lawyers for the victims and some in the public see the soft treatment for the defendants as evidence that those in power still grant Mubarak and those around him the aura of prestige.
Police assigned to courthouse security have been captured on camera offering their former boss el-Adly a salute as he arrived for one of the early hearings. Those images caused an uproar, but el-Adly, who as interior minister commanded the intensely hated police force, continues to walk from the armored police vehicle that brings him from jail to the courtroom without escort or handcuffs. Dark sunglasses, a navy blue baseball cap and a matching prison uniform have become the iconic look of a man whose name once struck fear in the hearts of the regime`s foes.
Similarly, Mubarak`s sons parade boldly into the courthouse, with Alaa carrying a purple chair that he sits on when inside the defendants` cage. Both Alaa and Gamal, who barely a year ago was thought to be Egypt`s second most powerful man after his father, wear immaculate white track suits with matching sneakers.