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Egypt’s Mubarak appears confident at court hearing

Egypt’s ex-leader Hosni Mubarak, with sons Alaa (right) and Gamal, waved to supporters.

Tarek el Gabbas/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Egypt’s ex-leader Hosni Mubarak, with sons Alaa (right) and Gamal, waved to supporters.

CAIRO — Former President Hosni Mubarak sat up, waved, and even smirked as he appeared at a hearing 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 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.

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The postponement was not unexpected; procedural delays for one reason or another are com­mon in Egyptian trials.

That left Egyptians puzzled by Mubarak’s demeanor. Many suggested that he appeared to be displaying a new confidence in his case or perhaps a gloating 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 Mubarak appeared in court a few months after he was forced from power in February 2011, viewers were transfixed by the image of the ex-autocrat lying on a hospital stretcher in a metal cage used in Egyptian courts as a dock. His two sons, on trial with him for corruption, stood in front of him to shield him from humiliation.

During the two years since, his lawyers have leaked recurring reports about his failing health in an apparent effort to win sympathy or better treatment for him. 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, Mu­barak was again wheeled into the court on a stretcher, wearing 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, 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.

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. If he and his sons are acquitted, they might not walk free.

A new public prosecutor appointed by President Mohammed Morsi has filed more corruption charges that may keep the Mubaraks in custody.

Still, some said they were outraged by 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.’’

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