CAIRO -- Former President Hosni Mubarak sat up, waved and even smirked as he appeared at a hearing on Saturday to open his retrial on charges related to the killing of protesters at the end of his rule.
The appearance in court was the first time that Mr. Mubarak, 84, had been seen in public in nearly a year, and it was brief. The presiding judge, Mustafa Hassan Abdullah, ended the session almost as soon as it began by recusing himself, citing a conflict of interest, presumably because he had ruled in related cases. The postponement was not unexpected; procedural delays for one reason or another are common in Egyptian trials.
That left Egyptians to puzzle over Mr. Mubarak's demeanor. Many suggested that he appeared to be displaying a new confidence in his case or perhaps a certain schadenfreude about the state of the country since his ouster.
"His smiling, confident expression is a very good symbol of how much has changed in the last two years since the case began," said Magda Boutros, the criminal justice reform director at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. "His supporters today probably give him much more of a sense that he was right from the start to threaten that it was either him or chaos, which is more or less what we are seeing now."
When Mr. Mubarak appeared in court a few months after he was forced from power in February 2011, viewers were transfixed by the televised image of the former autocrat lying on a hospital stretcher in the metal cage used in Egyptian courts as a dock. His two sons, on trial with him for corruption, stood together in front of him to try to shield him from humiliation. Mr. Mubarak was filmed at one session picking his nose.
Over the two years since, his lawyers have leaked recurring reports about his failing health in an apparent effort to win him sympathy or better treatment. A false report from Egypt's state news agency last June even pronounced him "clinically dead," although his lawyers later said that in fact he had slipped in the shower, received treatment for a blood clot and recovered. He remains in a military hospital on the Nile in Cairo rather than in prison because of concerns about his health.
On Saturday morning, Mr. Mubarak was again wheeled into the court on a stretcher, wearing dark sunglasses and a white jogging suit. But instead of crossing his hands over his chest like an enfeebled patient, he cradled them under his head to prop it up and look around, eventually sitting up as though on a lounge chair. He waved to the courtroom several times with the signature turn of the wrist he used as an all-powerful autocrat addressing his people.
Though his lips were pursed, Mr. Mubarak turned up the corners of his mouth several times in an unmistakable smile. No longer stone-faced and sullen, he chatted with his sons, or sat with his fingers pressed together in front of his chin as though he were listening in concentration from behind a desk in his office.
When the judge recused himself, chaos erupted briefly in the courtroom as advocates for civilians killed during the revolution shouted for revenge. "The people want the execution of the ousted!" they chanted. But the protest was tame compared with the courtroom uproar of his original trial, and the crowds of supporters and opponents outside the courthouse were much smaller, too.
Mr. Mubarak is expected to remain in custody while the courts seek a new judge, which could take months. And when the retrial begins, it is expected to last for months after that. Even if he and his sons are acquitted, they might not walk free. A new public prosecutor appointed by President Mohamed Morsi has filed additional corruption charges that may keep the Mubaraks in custody.
Still, some said they were outraged by Mr. Mubarak's evident satisfaction at the direction his trial and his country are taking. "Mubarak, the swindler," Abdel Wahed Ashour, editing director of the state news agency, wrote in a Twitter post, accusing him of "impudence" and "acting as if he is still president."
"It looks like his people in the judiciary reassured him," Mr. Ashour wrote.
Mr. Mubarak's first trial ended last year in a flimsy conviction that was soon overturned. A judge had acquitted him and his sons of corruption, citing the statute of limitations. And even while sentencing Mr. Mubarak to life in prison, the judge said the prosecution had presented no evidence that he had actively directed the killing of protesters. Mr. Mubarak was convicted on the ground of general responsibility for police killings, even though the same judge had acquitted many top police officials of the same charge.
The judge also rejected the prosecution's request for the death penalty. Under Egyptian law, that means Mr. Mubarak cannot receive the death penalty at his retrial on the same charges.
Egypt, meanwhile, is now more preoccupied with its current problems than with retribution against its former ruler. Instead of hanging dummies of Mr. Mubarak from lampposts, protesters are more likely to carry effigies of Mr. Morsi.
In contrast to the obsessive news coverage that preceded Mr. Mubarak's first trial, the Egyptian news media was more preoccupied last week with Egypt's deteriorating economy after two years of mayhem in the streets -- shortages of diesel fuel, worries about dwindling supplies of wheat and subsidized bread, and Mr. Morsi's negotiations with international lenders for desperately needed cash.
And Egyptian human rights advocates are now focused on cases of police abuse or legal actions threatening freedom of expression under the new government, rather than the crimes of the old one.
On Saturday, many who once hung on every word of the Mubarak trial had turned to another case, in Alexandria, where a political activist, Hassan Mostafa, is appealing his two-year sentence for slapping a prosecutor.
"I am much more concerned about this young man who has been sentenced to two years in prison because he reddened the cheeks of a prosecutor," said Ghada Shahbandar, of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. "At this moment, Mubarak is totally irrelevant."world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.