Wednesday’s decision threatened to stoke tensions in the deeply divided nation, widen the circle of anger against the military-backed government and amplify Islamist allegations that last month’s military coup was a step toward restoring the old regime.
Even if he is released after more than two years in detention, the 85-year-old former president is still on trial on separate charges that could put him back behind bars. Meanwhile, the prospect of Mubarak freed, even if only temporarily, would feed into the larger crisis bedeviling Egypt: the violent fallout from the July 3 coup that unseated Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist who became Egypt’s first freely elected president following Mubarak’s ouster.
Mubarak’s release “will cause chaos,” said human rights lawyer Nasser Amin. “It will be used by Islamists as proof of the return of the old regime…and can lead to new alliances between revolutionary groups and political Islam.”
The three judges convened in Tora prison, where Mubarak has been held for most of his detention since April 2011, and their decision was transmitted to official Egyptian media. But even before they ruled, human rights advocates were arguing for a new system of justice to make up for shoddy prosecution and a judiciary divided between loyalists of the old regime, Islamists and independents.
A prosecution official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the decision would not be appealed. A senior prison official, Mostafa Baz, told the private CBC TV station that his office will ask the prosecutors on Thursday whether Mubarak is wanted in other cases, and if not, he would be freed.
The possibility of Mubarak’s release came in the midst of the post-coup crackdown that has left more than 1,000 people dead and hundreds in detention.
The pro-Islamist camp was waning as its leadership and Morsi himself were arrested. Other serious blows this week were three high-level arrests: of the supreme leader and spiritual guide of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, of a cleric instrumental in fomenting street protest against the coup, and of a senior Brotherhood spokesman.
On the streets of Cairo, random interviews about Mubarak highlighted the deep polarization in Egypt, which doesn’t always clearly follow the fault lines of pro-Morsi or pro-military.
“This is an absurd charade by the judiciary, the army, the police in order to reinstate Mubarak and his corrupt regime and to rob the people of their revolution,” said Ibrahim Mohammed, a man in his 30s who said he wasn’t a Morsi supporter.
Another Cairo resident, Ahmad Kamal, said it was time Mubarak was set free.
“He should have been released a long time ago. God forgive them for what they have done and the judiciary has ordered this so that should be enough. I have complete faith in the Egyptian judiciary,” Kamal said.
Since his overthrow in February 2011, Mubarak has been on a roller coaster ride through the courts during which he has been convicted, only for another court to overturn the ruling, grant him a retrial and order him released. Still, he was kept behind bars pending retrial and on other charges.