By Marwa Awad and Shaimaa Fayed
CAIRO/SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt (Reuters) - Egyptians were enthralled on Wednesday by the unprecedented sight of ousted president Hosni Mubarak, a leader of the Arab world for three decades and now the Arab Spring's biggest scalp, being wheeled into a courtroom cage for his trial.
Outside the courtroom they watched on a big screen as the frail octogenarian, who ruled Egypt for 30 years, lay on a hospital bed connected to a drip denying involvement in the killing of protesters who ousted him.
"I don't believe this ... to see a president being tried ... I never imagined it. I am so happy, I feel tomorrow will be better and that the next president knows what could happen to him if he goes against his people," Ahmed Amer,30, an employee in a water service company, said outside the court complex.
Egyptians crowded into cafes, kiosks, anywhere with a television to follow the trial.
In other Arab countries too, many still convulsed by their own upheavals, people watched the court drama with fascination.
A Bahraini activist called Online Bahrain addressed other despots across the Arab world: "Dear Arab dictator, take a long hard look at Mubarak. He was just as powerful as you were. Your time is up if you don't change."
Mubarak, 83, was driven from office by his own people and his trial sends a stark message to other Arab autocrats facing popular uprisings.
Inside the cage with Mubarak were his two sons, Gamal, once viewed as a future president, and Alaa, who had business interests. They too denied the charges. Alongside them, were former Interior Minister Habib al-Adli and other officials.
"I used to oppose the revolution at first. I criticized the youth in Tahrir Square and those who protested. But seeing that their efforts have finally brought this pharaoh to court, I must say that I salute the revolution and the youth of Egypt," said Ali Abdullah, a shop owner in Sharm el-Sheikh, the Red Sea resort where Mubarak was exiled and in hospital after he quit.
Egyptians blame Mubarak for economic policies they say filled the pockets of the rich while many of the nation's 80 million people scrabbled in squalor to feed their families. They are also angry at his repression of any opposition.
Mubarak talked to his sons inside the cage and occasionally lifted his head to watch the proceedings. Many Egyptians see his illness as a ruse to gain sympathy and had thought the army might use it to avoid bringing him to trial in person.
"Why is he on a stretcher? Is he handicapped? This is playing on people's emotions so we can all start crying over an old man," Mohamed Naguib, 32, said in Sharm el-Sheikh.
But the images of Egypt's former president and a war veteran, who always presented himself as a father figure protecting the nation, gained him some sympathy.
"I am sad, really sad. I never imagined to see my president lie on a bed like this. After all he is an old man, there should be mercy.. But I don't care for his sons, they can do what they want with them," said Khaled Hassan, 41, a plumber.
In the region, Mubarak also found sympathizers.
"I don't like the fact that he is being put on trial. ... True he made some mistakes but he also gave Egypt a lot, he is a symbol for the country," said Sara Abbar, in the Saudi Arabian coastal city of Jeddah.
But Mosa'ab Elshamy wrote on his ArabRevolution Twitter account: "Even on a bed in a cage, Mubarak's eye seem to be filled with arrogance, hands resting on chin. Unbelievable."
Earlier, pro- and anti-Mubarak protesters faced off outside the courtroom and some in the two groups hurled stones at each other. Hundreds of police intervened to calm them down.
A small pro-Mubarak rally of men, women and children chanted: "O Mubarak hold your head high".
If convicted, Mubarak could face the death penalty, though few expect that outcome even if some protesters wish it.
He is the first Arab leader to stand trial in person after uprisings toppled him as well as Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia and was tried in absentia.
(Additional reporting by Andrew Hammond in Dubai, Asma Alsharif in Saudi Arabia and Sarah Mikhail in Cairo; Writing by Sherine El Madany; Editing by Edmund Blair and Gareth Jones)