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Egyptian court orders Mubarak’s release as violence persists

Timing unclear, but act hints at shift in Egypt

Many of the charges originally brought against Hosni Mubarak have been dismissed.

EPA/File

Many of the charges originally brought against Hosni Mubarak have been dismissed.

CAIRO — A court on Monday ordered the release of former president Hosni Mubarak, a measure of how far the tumult now shaking Egypt has rolled back the sweeping changes and soaring hopes that followed his exit two and a half years ago.

Few legal analysts thought a release was likely, at least in coming weeks. But under the new government installed last month by General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, they say, it is no longer a foregone conclusion that prosecutors will continue to find reasons to detain the former autocrat, who was arrested after the uprising against his rule in 2011.

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Even the possibility of Mubarak’s release, previously unthinkable, provided another sign of the potential return of his authoritarian style of government.

Since the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi, the interim government has brought back not only prominent faces of the Mubarak era but signature elements of his authoritarian state, including an “emergency law” removing the right to a trial and other curbs on police abuse, the appointment of generals as governors across the provinces, and moves to once again outlaw the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist threat.

State news media reported early Tuesday morning that the Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, Mohamed Badie, had been arrested, and a private television network that supports Sissi broadcast footage of what appeared to be Badie in custody.

Meanwhile, the police scarcely bothered to offer a credible explanation for the deaths of three dozen Morsi supporters who died in custody and were seen by their families at a morgue Monday — at least two were badly burned from the shoulders up and others had evidence of torture. After shifting stories, the police ultimately said the detainees suffocated from tear gas during a failed escape attempt.

Security officers have a new bounce in their step. They are once again pulling men from their cars at checkpoints for interrogation because they wear beards or dealing out arbitrary beatings with a sense of impunity — Mubarak-era hallmarks that had receded in recent years. Among civilians, even those outside the Muslin Brotherhood, fear of the police has returned.

Badr Abdelatty, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, denied any resemblance between the new government and Mubarak’s.

“The emergency law is just for one month and for one objective: fighting terrorism,” he said, using the term that the new government applies to both civil disobedience and acts of violence by Islamist opponents of the military takeover. “The only way to fight terrorism is to apply the rule of law and some emergency measures for just one month,” Abdelatty said.

More than 1,000 Brotherhood members and other supporters of Morsi have died since last Wednesday in a police crackdown, and his ouster has set off a wave of retaliatory violence from his supporters. Many attacks targeted churches around the country and security forces in the relatively lawless northern Sinai.

In the latest episode there, militants killed 25 police officers and wounded three others Monday in an attack on their minibuses. Officials said the bodies were found face down with bound hands, evidently assassinated.

Egyptian state and private television networks, all pro-government now, broadcast images of the bodies’ return to Cairo, sometimes under a heading about Egypt’s fight against terrorism. The Muslim Brotherhood, which has denounced those killings, held protests and marches by thousands of its supporters in Cairo and across the country, as it has every day for the six weeks since Morsi’s ouster.

Some analysts said Monday that the new government was arguably more authoritarian than Mubarak’s.

“The Mubarak state was actually less repressive than what we are seeing now,” said Shadi Hamid, research director for the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. “In terms of sheer number of people killed, what we are seeing is unprecedented for Egypt.”

But Hamid said, while Mubarak’s supporters were diffident or self-serving, Sissi “has the fervent backing of millions of ordinary Egyptians, many of whom think the army has not been sufficiently brutal against the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Many of the charges originally brought against Mubarak, including directing the killing of protesters, have been dismissed. But the previous post-Mubarak governments always made clear that they would keep finding new allegations to keep him behind bars.

The council of generals that succeeded Mubarak was too desperate to placate the public and preserve their own legitimacy to release him, and Morsi, an Islamist jailed under Mubarak for his political opposition, campaigned on promises to keep him locked up.

But the Sissi government has no such insecurity about its power or hostility to Mubarak. Some members of political factions that had previously joined rallies for Mubarak’s incarceration or even execution said they believed the public did not care so much anymore.

“I don’t think people are paying the slightest attention,” said Hussein Gohar, a spokesman for the Social Democratic Party.

“And if it happens, it will not have anything close to the impact it would have had a year ago,” he said of Mubarak’s release, in part “because people have moved on” and in part “because of the paradigm shift to support for the army.”

Besides, Gohar said, he did not think the authorities would allow massive protests against Mubarak, once an air force general. “At the end of the day, Mubarak is part of the military,” Gohar said. “He is one of them.”

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