The live TV images of a caged and bedridden Hosni Mubarak being held to account for alleged crimes against his own people — by his own people — captivated viewers across the Middle East and appeared to many to be a powerful turning point in this year's uprisings.
Some hoped the trial, which began Wednesday in Cairo, would be the first of several bringing longtime autocrats to justice. Others weren't quite sure what to make of the spectacle, torn between a desire for justice and the discomfort of seeing a once-all-powerful Arab leader treated like a common criminal.
For many others from North Africa to the Arabian Gulf, the trial carried a deeper meaning. It was, in the words of pastry shop owner Saif Mahmoud in Baghdad, a rewriting of the rules between the region's people and their leaders. That's because unlike Iraq's Saddam Hussain, who was captured by American forces, Mubarak was brought to court by his own people.
In the West Bank city of Ramallah, 29-year-old Palestinian Salah Abu Samera saw emerging democracy. "It's unusual in the Arab world," he said. "This is the first time we see a leader in a real court. This is good for democracy, good for the future. We've always heard of leaders on trial in Israel, in Turkey, in the US, or Europe. But this is the first time in the Arab world."
Another Palestinian, retiree Mohammad Adnan, 64, described Mubarak's trial as a "huge move" for the region. He said the longtime Egyptian strongman never would have treated his people as he did had he headed a democratic country and knew he would be held accountable for his actions.
The trial especially resonated in countries where citizens are still agitating for change against their own longtime rulers.
Activists in Syria, where tanks and shellfire continued to hammer the opposition in the city of Hama, accused the regime of Bashar Al Assad of striking hard at a moment when world and media attention were distracted by Mubarak's trial.
In Egypt's next-door neighbour Libya, rebels concentrated in the east are fighting to try to oust Muammar Gaddafi, who has held power even longer than Mubarak did.
Support for action
Mohammad Al Rajali, a spokesman for the rebels, said he welcomed the trial against Mubarak, who like Gaddafi was a military officer before taking power. "We wish to see Gaddafi in a similar cage one day," Al Rajali said. He insisted the Libyan leader would have a fair trial if the rebels ever get hold of him "because we are a country of laws and we are against public executions."
Across the region, in Bahrain, state-run television aired a local tourism programme as Mubarak's trial got under way. The tiny kingdom has been roiled by protests themselves inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia that eventually brought both countries' leaders down.
A Twitter feed used by activists involved in the Bahraini protest movement questioned the decision to keep the trial off the air.
"Bahrain TV promoting Bahrain tourism, ignoring broadcasting Mubarak's trial???" read one tweet in Arabic. Syed Ahmad, 29, an unemployed Bahraini, said he hoped his countrymen would learn from Egypt.
"I wishedI were in the courtroom to shout loudly: ‘Long live justice!'" he said. "Today is the beginning of the victory for the Egyptian revolution and [for the] martyrs who demanded pride and honuor to achieve the rule of law."
Not everyone saw the courtroom drama as a step forward, however. "The Mubarak trial is a massive shame for the Arab world. For 30 years he served the people. They should have made him a statue of honour next to the Sphinx," said Hassan Al Masri, 45, from Gaza City.
He described Mubarak as a fighter and said a great leader for the Arabs "does not deserve to sit inside a cage like a criminal."
Mahmoud, the Iraqi pastry store owner, also criticized the way the Egyptian authorities dealt with Mubarak by bringing him into the courtroom on a hospital gurney.
Disrespect for leader
"We know that he made mistakes since he took office, but authorities should have shown some respect to this leader... instead of dealing with him in such a humiliating way," he said. "They should have waited until he can stand trial with an elegant suit, not lying on a stretcher."
Sultan Al Qassimi, 33, a widely followed Twitter user and columnist in the UAE, voiced similar feelings. On one hand, he said he doesn't like seeing an elderly man being treated as Mubarak was, but on the other, he said he thinks of what kind of justice those killed in the uprising deserve. "I almost wish he had stepped down earlier" so things wouldn't have come to this, he said.
But he added that Mubarak's fate should be left to his fellow countrymen.