Mubarak sons walk free in Egypt. Will the former dictator be next?

Convicted last year of corruption, Alaa and Gamal Mubarak walked out of jail Thursday in Cairo after a court overturned the verdict. Former President Hosni Mubarak, who was overthrown in 2011, has also been cleared for release. 

Mohammed al-Law/AP/File
Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, seated left, and his two sons, Gamal Mubarak, far left, and Alaa Mubarak attend a hearing in a courtroom at the Police Academy, Cairo, Sept. 14, 2013. The sons of Mubarak were ordered released on bail Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015, pending a retrial in the last case that was keeping them behind bars, opening the door for the release of the two for the first time since they were incarcerated in the wake of their father’s ouster in 2011.

An Egyptian court has ordered the release of former President Hosni Mubarak's jailed sons, just days before the anniversary of the 2011 uprising that overthrew the longtime dictator.

The symbolism of their release is acute. Alaa and Gamal Mubarak had previously been convicted in a corruption case emblematic of the excesses of their father’s three decades in office. Mr. Mubarak, a close American ally until his final chaotic days in power, remains in detention in a military hospital after being convicted in the same case. But he, too, is likely to walk free after a mistrial was declared earlier this month. 

And while the jailhouse door has opened for the two brothers, pending a retrial, it remains shut for thousands of others who have been jailed under Egypt’s new regime, led by Abdel Fattah al Sisi.

Mr. Sisi, a retired army general, styles himself as a bulwark against chaos in the Arab world’s most populous country. Speaking Thursday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, he made a pitch for foreign investment in Egypt’s feeble economy and declared common cause with Western powers fighting terrorism. He hasn’t commented publicly on Mubarak’s acquittal.

Mubarak's eldest son, Alaa, was a prominent businessman, while his youngest son, Gamal, was a senior official in the ruling party and widely tipped to succeed his father before the 2011 uprising. They were convicted last May, along with their father, of embezzling over $13.5 million in state assets – the money had been spent on jacuzzis, double-door refrigerators, and even a private mausoleum for Alaa’s deceased son, Mohamed.

But the case was thrown out on Jan. 13 on a legal technicality. Under Egyptian law, the two brothers have served out the maximum period of preventative detention. The same applies to the former president and the question now seems not to be if, but when he will be released, though it remains politically sensitive here.

Critics decried the acquittals as indicative of the selective nature of Egypt's justice system. Thousands of dissidents have been jailed since the overthrow of Mubarak's Islamist successor, Mohamed Morsi, in July 2013. Rights groups have pointed to a host of procedural violations in mass trials, some of which have put up to 683 people in the dock. But while an upsurge in popular anger swept Mubarak from power four years ago, his release is unlikely to spark a significant response.

Rehabilitation of regime insiders

The former dictator has been largely rehabilitated in the eyes of both the Egyptian state and its public, and members of his inner circle are back in favor. Some are now once again at the top of the political and security establishment, championing a searing crackdown against government opponents. More than 41,000 people have been arrested in Egypt since Mr. Morsi’s overthrow, and torture is commonplace in custody.

Mubarak's overthrow was followed by years of political and economic turmoil, and many Egyptians now long for the perceived stability of the pre-revolutionary years. On the streets of Cairo, the response to Alaa and Gamal’s release Thursday was muted – a small group including revolutionary-era activists gathered downtown, but were swiftly dispersed by police.

Last week, Mubarak's wife, Suzanne, broke her four-year public silence, celebrating what she called her family's vindication. “I had been praying to God to prolong the life of President Mubarak so that he may live to see his acquittal of accusations and lies," she told a Kuwaiti journalist at her home in Cairo. 

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