Former President Hosni Mubarak was released from prison today on bail. While his release was based on a legal technicality, it is full of symbolism for how much Egypt is swinging back toward the state of affairs before he was swept from office by mass protests in January 2011.
Mr. Mubarak was flown from a prison south of Cairo to a military hospital, at his request. He will be under house arrest as he awaits his retrial on charges of killing protesters during the uprising that toppled him.
Supporters of former President Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president who was ousted by the military last month, declared Mubarak's release evidence that the military and interim leaders are engaged in a counterrevolution to bring back the old regime.
A court ruled the former president released because he had been detained as long as legally possible without being convicted. Though his release was a matter of legal procedure, “Mubarak going home to his wife even under house arrest, just serves to show where we're at,” says Hossam Bahgat, head of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
“We have an intelligence, military, security apparatus that is in control of the government. We have a discourse of an all-out war against terrorism, and we have very few voices willing to scrutinize government behavior and every reason to believe that the political sphere is going to be strictly controlled by the new authorities with intolerance for dissent, and with massive popular appeal,” he says.
Mubarak, who ruled Egypt for nearly three decades, was ousted after mass protests against his rule in 2011. But he was replaced by military generals who displayed no interest in reforming state institutions or achieving transitional justice. Public pressure to try Mubarak quickly was high, and prosecutors brought cases against the former president that legal experts described as shoddy. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in the protesters case last year, only to have a judge throw out the conviction because of weak evidence and order a retrial in January.
Despite his release, Mubarak's assets will remain frozen and he is banned from leaving Egypt. The prime minister announced yesterday that the state of emergency declared by the interim president last week allows authorities to put Mubarak under house arrest. In addition to his retrial for protester deaths, there are also corruption charges pending against him.
His release comes as the security state that was weakened but never abolished after Mubarak's overthrow appears to be on the mend. Since the military deposed Morsi, a former Brotherhood leader, after mass protests against his rule, security and intelligence services have stepped up harassment of journalists and there have been mass arrests of Islamists in a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. The prime minister recently proposed legally disbanding the Islamist organization, returning it to the underground status it occupied under Mubarak, and last week the government declared a state of emergency, which was a near-constant feature of Mubarak's three-decade rule.
Yet the crackdown has been much harsher than any under Mubarak; last week, security forces dispersed two protest camps full of Morsi supporters, using tear gas, bulldozers, and live ammunition, and killing hundreds. Roughly 1,000 people have died since Aug 14 in the police attacks on the sit-ins and ensuing violence.
The uprising against Mubarak was fed by a groundswell of anger over the brutal police torture and abuse, inequality, injustice, and government neglect that was rampant during his rule. That he has not yet been held responsible for any of his crimes will anger many of those who protested against his regime and highlighted his abuses. Yet after the two and a half years of political tumult, violence, and economic hardship that followed his ouster, there are some who would trade today's chaos for the perceived stability of Mubarak's rule.
“Mubarak was good, and the days of his rule were better than now,” said Mohamed Abdel Hamid as he sold roses to passersby in downtown Cairo today. “Now everything is worse. People are causing division between Muslims and Christians, terrorist are overruning the country; the economy is destroyed. I was making more money under Mubarak, and now I can't even make enough to get by.”
Mr. Abdel Hamid said he was happy that Mubarak was released because he didn't think the former president had committed any crimes.
Others said Egypt had suffered so much during the year Morsi was president that Mubarak's crimes paled in comparison. “We faced more injustice from Mohamed Morsi in one year than we faced in 30 years under Mubarak,” says Susan Wahba, an employee at an accessories shop in Cairo.
The former president's release could fuel protests by Islamists and others who oppose the military.
“Mubarak's release shows the true colors of the military coup leaders,” says Ahmed Ibrahim, who opposes Morsi's ouster and the military's crackdown. “This will cause all Egyptians to see the truth about them, and it will bring more people to the protests against the military and this puppet government.”
H.A. Hellyer, a Cairo-based fellow at the Brookings Institution, says the belief that the issue would have been handled differently were Morsi still president is misguided. “It's the law, and I don't see any loopholes around the law,” he says. “It's terribly bad timing … but you can't get around it.”
“The real situation to watch is how the other cases are going to go,” he says. “The problem is the evidence that has been presented is weak: The prosecution hasn't done the most sterling job."
Despite their gloomy assessment of the state of Egypt and the temptation to declare Egypt's revolution over, activists say the struggle will continue.
“It is a bad time, and we fear that the it's going to get even worse,” says Mr. Bahgat of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “Certainly the hopes we had in February 2011 of building a new Egypt on new ideals have taken a series of serious blows, but I still think that it is not over. The people are not going to accept a continuation of the same injustice and marginalization and repression that they had endured under Mubarak for 30 years. There might be a lull right now because people wanted to get rid of the Muslim Brotherhood rule that they came to fear and hate so much, and are willing to throw their support behind the new authorities and the military leadership.”
But, he says, Egypt is already seeing signs, in the form of actions like labor strikes, that citizens are not willing to live with continued repression. It's only a matter of time, says Bahgat, before people once again begin chafing again at the poverty, injustice, and police brutality that brought them to the streets in the first place.
“All of these things are going to determine the next wave of public anger, regardless even if we don't know precisely what form that public outburst of anger is going to take this time,” he says.