Egypt’s Revolution Comes Full Circle: Court Orders Mubarak’s Release

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Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is seen on a stretcher looking on from behind the bars of a cage inside the court room during his trial at the Police Academy in Cairo, in this April 13 2013 file photo.

An Egyptian court ordered deposed President Hosni Mubarak released from prison on Wednesday, further deepening the sense of crisis one week after the country’s military-backed interim government carried out what human rights advocates say was the worst single episode of extrajudicial killing in the country’s modern history.

Leaving Cairo’s Tora Prison, where Mubarak was held and the court also convened, Mubarak’s lawyer, Farid Al-Deeb, told Reuters news agency that his client could go free as soon as Thursday. State prosecutor Ahmed el-Bahrawi told the agency Mubarak’s corruption case could not be appealed.

At one time, Mubarak’s release would have triggered massive protests from the revolutionary forces that ended his 30-year rule during the winter 2011 uprising. A June 2012 ruling in a separate court case over the killing of demonstrators in 2011 set off days of protests in Cairo and other cities after the court convicted Mubarak, but failed to convict senior security officials blamed for a deadly crackdown on demonstrators.

But today, Egypt’s politics operates in a different paradigm after the military removed Islamist President Mohamed Morsi from power on July 3 following another popular uprising on June 30. The military-backed interim government that replaced Morsi enjoys the support of many secular nationalists as it carries out a full-scale crackdown on Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups. A week ago, government forces moved in to crush protest camps set up by those calling for Morsi’s reinstatement, which led to the deaths of hundreds. The government blames Islamists for the current crisis and says it is carrying out a campaign against “terrorism.”

It was too soon to tell if the ruling in the Mubarak case would fracture the military’s non-Islamist coalition. To date, a few prominent liberal figures have expressed disquiet with the military’s handling of the current crisis. Nobel laureate and former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei, who resigned from the Egyptian cabinet in protest over last week’s killings, has reportedly returned to Austria, and is now being sued in court for “betrayal of trust” over his resignation.

“The liberals over the past year, you know they were supporting the judiciary as a critic of Morsi,” says Yousef Auf, an Egyptian judge and a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington. “They cannot criticize this ruling.”

However, the court’s decision did upset some of the young activists who organized the June 30 protests that enabled the military’s seizure of power. A man who answered the phone at the offices of Tamarod (Rebellion), the group that spearheaded the June uprising, identifying himself as Ahmed Abdo, 24, said his group rejected Wednesday’s ruling.

“We refuse the release of Mubarak and the old regime because they are criminals,” he says. “He is like Morsi, a criminal.”

Asked whether his group would mobilize protests against Mubarak’s release, Abdo says, “Not yet.” However, the group would join protests if other opposition forces organized them. He added that the group sees itself as inheriting the spirit of the 2011 revolution, not opposing it. The military, which played a role in bumping Mubarak from power, also casts itself as the guardian of the revolution. But in the wake of the July 3 coup, revolutionary legitimacy may no longer have the same cachet in Egyptian politics that it had in the previous two years.

“The Egyptian people do not care much about Mubarak,” says Auf. “There is a state of emergency and there is a curfew in the streets, and this for many people is more important than Mubarak.”

Wednesday’s ruling does not represent the end of Mubarak’s legal problems. He also faces trial in a separate, ongoing case over the killing of more than 800 demonstrators during the 2011 uprising against him. The ruling was in a corruption case alleging he accepted $4.6 million gifts from Al-Ahram, the state-owned newspaper. Even if he is released, Mubarak will remain under a travel ban and will be unable to leave the country. Some speculated that if freed he would travel to his family’s villa in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el Sheikh.

If and when he goes free, Mubarak himself will have no future role in official politics. His release from prison, however, would be seen by many Egyptians as another sign that the achievements of the 2011 uprising were being scaled back.