CAIRO — Egypt’s military-appointed government ordered former president Hosni Mubarak transferred from prison to house arrest late Wednesday after a court said he could no longer be held legally behind bars.
The order, announced by the Cabinet, did not specify when the transfer would take place or where Mubarak would be moved, but said it could happen as early as Thursday. Mubarak, who ruled Egypt for 30 years, has spent the past 17 months in prison.
Mubarak’s release from prison to a much milder form of incarceration injects a potentially volatile new element into the political crisis that has been convulsing the country in the six weeks since the military ousted the man who replaced Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected president. Morsi remains under indefinite detention in an undisclosed location with no access to legal counsel.
The announcement regarding Mubarak came after an Egyptian court ruled that all appeals by prosecutors to keep him locked in prison had been exhausted.
An official in the office of his lawyer, Farid el-Deeb, said the firm expected that Mubarak, 85, would be released within a matter of hours.
It was unclear why the Cabinet decreed Mubarak must remain under house arrest. But under the state of emergency declared after Morsi was deposed, the military-appointed government can exert unlimited powers in the country’s easily manipulated judicial system.
Even some of Mubarak’s opponents expected his release.
“We are now facing a sound release order, and the prosecution will appeal and the appeal will be denied and he will walk out, and he has a right to do so,” said Khaled Abu Bakr, a prominent lawyer involved in the cases of protesters killed during the protests against Mubarak that preceded his downfall more than two years ago.
The court order applied to the last of at least three prosecutions Mubarak still faced. He had already been ordered freed pending trial on two other cases, including a retrial on charges of complicity in the deaths of 800 protesters at the end of his regime in January 2011.
The juxtaposition of leniency for Mubarak while Morsi remains in custody could test the support for the military-led government among the many anti-Mubarak activists who later sided with the decision to depose Morsi and crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood.
Reached by phone and told that Mubarak’s release from prison looked imminent, Ahmed Maher, the founder of the 6th of April youth group that helped start the revolution, was silent for several moments. “I’m shocked,” he said.
But he saw no likelihood of street protests because opponents of the government had been cowed into silence by widespread killings and arrests.
“If anybody even thinks of objecting, they will suffer,” he said. “If anybody dares express opposition against the government or the president or the military, they’ll be accused of treason and called a Muslim Brother in hiding.”
In Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where protesters once hung banners and nooses demanding Mubarak’s execution, public opinion appeared to have moved on. No one seemed to care much about Mubarak’s fate. The only ones who did appeared to be Western journalists looking for reactions.
There was more concern from the Tamarod movement, the organization that ran a petition drive calling for Morsi’s ouster and calling for the June 30 demonstrations that led the military to depose him.
The group blamed Morsi for not having more aggressively prosecuted Mubarak and his subordinates for the deaths of protesters.