Hosni Mubarak, the former Egyptian dictator toppled by the 2011 popular protests against his autocratic rule, has been released from prison and has been taken away in a helicopter, according to a security source.
Details are scarce, but Agence France Presse is reporting that he is en route to a military hospital.
Egyptian officials say the decision by a Cairo court Wednesday to free Mr. Mubarak is a purely judicial matter. But some experts see it as a sign that the country’s revolution is being rolled back. While the military-backed interim government stepped in to say the 85-year-old former president would remain under guard, deep concerns remain that Mr. Mubarak’s hallmark authoritarian ways are back.
Mr. Mubarak’s fate has suddenly become a potent symbol in Egypt’s turbulent politics. After the military ousted elected president Mohammed Morsi in early July and launched a violent crackdown on his Muslim brotherhood supporters, the prospect of Mr. Mubarak’s release after two years symbolized to some a return to the past. It threatens to further divide a country in turmoil.
Egypt’s ambassador to Canada, Wael Aboulmagd, said his country still cheers Mr. Mubarak’s removal from power, but that the judiciary is handling the charges against him. Egypt’s generals, he said, will not cling to power.
Mr. Aboulmagd, who was posted as Egypt’s ambassador to Canada during Mr. Mubarak’s rule and remained through three changes of government, insisted that the prospect of Mr. Mubarak’s release – and Wednesday’s court order – did not suggest the country is turning its back on the days when Egyptians celebrated Mr. Mubarak’s ouster.
“Removal from power is one thing, and that’s what we cheer,” he said. “Accusations levied against any individual, no matter what I or anyone else thinks of their guilt or innocence is another matter. In this case I can only, and everyone should only, have full trust in the judicial system.”
He added: “I think the timing is a coincidence.”
But the Mubarak case has raised questions about the military’s intentions. Robert Springborg, an Egypt expert at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, said that no matter how the interim government deals with Mr. Mubarak’s release, a military-authoritarian counter-revolution “is in full force.”
Mr. Mubarak still faces murder and corruption charges. But his release, human-rights lawyer Nasser Amin warned, “will be used by Islamists as proof of the return of the old regime.”
The Tamarod youth movement, which mounted the Cairo protests that led to Mr. Morsi’s ouster, called on the interim government to use emergency powers to keep Mr. Mubarak in jail. Late Wednesday, the interim government responded – but not exactly in the way the movement wanted.
“In the framework of the emergency law, the deputy military ruler ordered Mubarak to be placed under house arrest,” a cabinet statement said.
The court’s ruling on Mr. Mubarak was awkward for the generals, said Mr. Springbord. It risked lending credence to the suggestion they were in cahoots all along with remnants of the old regime. It’s more likely, he said, that some military officers would view the release of Mr. Mubarak as honouring a 2011 deal – made during the massive protests in Tahrir Square while he was still clinging to power – that he step down from power, but be protected.
But it’s the regime’s current nature, and its future, that has made Western countries worry. They have been uneasy at the military ouster of Mr. Morsi and the violent crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood protesters last week. Public opinion has been darkened by incidents like the arrest of two Canadians, doctor Tarek Loubani and filmmaker John Greyson, who remain in prison for up to 15 days while Ottawa argues they were simply in “the wrong place at the wrong time.”
The European Union reviewed its $5-billion financial aid to Egypt at a meeting Wednesday, but avoided a decision on whether to cut it off. The U.S. has suggested it might cut military aid, but has not acted. But Saudi Arabia has vowed to make up for any cut in European or U.S. aid – and Mr. Springborg said he believes the Egyptian government is calculating that what the world will want is stability, and their criticisms will blow over.
“The counter-revolution is in full force, backed by the Saudis,” he said. “These forces are lining up to establish a new and improved form of military rule – younger, more dynamic, better at public relations, with better quality civilians leading the civilian face of government. But in reality, it’s a return to authoritarian-military government.”
Mr. Aboulmagd, however, argues that there has been a one-sided reaction to the violence in some places outside Egypt.
“Starting this past Friday, the amount of violence by what are supposedly protesters went far and beyond anything that anybody can consider peaceful,” he said. “We’re seriously concerned at what appears to be, in some circles outside of Egypt, some kind of moral equivalence between police that are dealing with these attacks and people, supposedly protesters, that are taking it beyond protesting.”
He insisted that the new interim government has every intention of yielding power, and sticking to a “road map” that will see parliamentary and presidential elections with months, after the constitution is amended by political parties, including Islamists.
“Everyone is committed to it. Not only that, everyone is invited to it – provided of course, there not involved in actual crimes or violence” he said. “It’s not a welcoming of the return to military dictatorship. There is a road map.”