Egypt's feared military leader blames embassy attack for his no-show at Mubarak's trial

Egypt's military ruler failed to make his eagerly anticipated appearance at the trial of the deposed leader Hosni Mubarak yesterday, blaming the continuing fallout from the dramatic siege of the Israeli embassy in Cairo.

Field Marshall Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, once a close Mubarak ally, postponed his closed-doors evidence that many had hoped would prove critical in convicting Mr Mubarak of conspiring to kill unarmed protesters after the start of the uprising in January. The delay is likely to dismay many Egyptians, who have repeatedly called for faster political reform and swift justice for members of the ousted ruling elite, months after massive pro-democracy demonstrations swept the Mubarak regime from power. The former Defence Minister will now appear before the court on 24 September, according to Egyptian media.

On Friday protests demanding swifter political reform quickly descended into chaos, when an angry mob converged on the Israeli embassy, rampaging through the building and clashing with police in the second incident in a few weeks. Egyptian commandos rescued diplomatic staff from the furious mob.

In the wake of the attack, Mr Tantawi said he was busy with security issues and offered to provide written testimony to the court instead, a proposal rejected by the judge. The delay could also indicate a reluctance by Mr Tantawi, described in a US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks as "Mubarak's poodle", to give evidence against an old friend with whom he was closely linked in decades of repressive rule.

There is also a fear by some senior officials that the trial, which is being conducted behind closed doors under a media blackout, could potentially implicate members of the interim military authority in the crackdown that left nearly 900 dead.

Many ordinary Egyptians remain deeply sceptical that Mr Mubarak, 83, and his political allies will be convicted. The Egyptian authorities are already suspected of drawing out the case, and several police witnesses have recanted earlier statements.

Mr Tantawi's evidence has been sought because he hinted previously that the army had defied orders to fire on protesters. Mr Mubarak, who is also accused of corruption and abuse of power, has pleaded not guilty.

Both Israel and Egypt appeared keen to avoid a prolonged diplomatic crisis over the embassy attack, with Israeli officials playing down reports that Egyptian officials initially ignored Israeli pleas for intervention. The United States, which has provided Egypt with billions of dollars in military aid, finally demanded that Egypt protect the Israeli mission. "When push came to shove, [the Egyptians] did come to the fore," an Israeli official said.

Egypt bolstered security around the embassy yesterday as the two countries discussed ways to reopen the mission after Israel's ambassador and most of its embassy staff were airlifted out. Israel said it wanted to send its envoy back, but first required assurances about security.

Egypt's military council has struggled to contain domestic anger towards Israel, which has intensified since Israeli forces killed five Egyptian border guards following a cross-border terror attack last month. Nearly 20 people have been arrested in connection with the attack on the embassy, which left three dead and hundreds injured.

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