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Why Egypt just freed former dictator Hosni Mubarak

Hosni Mubarak in Cairo in February 2011, a few days before his ouster
Hosni Mubarak in Cairo in February 2011, a few days before his ouster
  1. All remaining charges against former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak have been dismissed by the court hearing his case. He is free.
  2. Mubarak ruled from 1981 until the 2011 Egyptian revolution, when he was deposed and jailed for corruption as well as responsibility for Egyptian security forces who killed hundreds of protesters during the revolution.
  3. Mubarak's release is a result, symbolically and literally, of Egypt's return since the 2011 revolution back to a military dictatorship that looks an awful lot like it did under Mubarak.

Why Mubarak was released

Officially, the case was dismissed on a technicality: prosecutors were supposed to follow a special procedure in May 2011 when they added Mubarak as a co-defendant to a pre-existing case, but they didn't file the paperwork in time. Of course, there is more going on here. Despite the judge's insistence that the ruling "has nothing to do with politics," this is all about politics.

The charges against Mubarak were always political. In February, 2011, he was ousted by popular revolution and by the military; shortly after, he was imprisoned on charges of corruption (for selling natural gas to Israel at below-market prices, for instance) and of murder, for ordering security forces to kill civilians who had gathered against him in protest. While the charges were almost certainly accurate — security forces did kill hundreds of protesters, and Mubarak's regime was notoriously corrupt — the case against him was rushed through to satisfy the revolutionary mood of the moment.

Now, the revolutionary mood is over. Egypt is today ruled by Abdel Fatah el-Sisi, a military dictator and secular nationalist just like Mubarak had been. (Also like Mubarak, Sisi has officially relinquished his military title.) Sisi's regime looks an awful lot like Mubarak's and includes a number of the same people. Under Mubarak, the Egyptian judiciary was a reliable political organ, staffed with regime loyalists; it remains so today.

The politics clearly favored Mubarak's release, and it is politics — not rule of law — that clearly guided this case from the beginning. (In May, Mubarak was sentenced to three years for a separate set of corruption charges, but he had already served three years as of the very month he was convicted, meaning his sentence is over and he has no outstanding charges.)

Mubarak's release is unsurprising, but hugely important symbolically

Abdel Fatah el-Sisi, who seized power in a July 2013, meets with President Putin in Moscow (MAXIM SHEMETOV/AFP/Getty)

Sisi may not have ordered the judge to free Mubarak, but he wouldn't have to.

In the last four years, Egypt's political climate and state media have veered from the secular authoritarianism of Mubarak, to the secular liberalism of the 2011 revolution, to the Islamism of the 2012 democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government, and with Sisi's July 2013 coup back to secular authoritarianism.

The judges are smart enough to know who's in charge and how things are to work. While Sisi's state media is not openly pro-Mubarak — that would be a hard sell after public rage sent hundreds of thousands of Egyptians into the street calling for his ouster — it does openly condemn the 2011 revolutionary leaders, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood that took power in 2012. Sisi also glorifies himself as the continuation of the two beloved military leaders who preceded Mubarak, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar El Sadat. Mubarak also presented himself as a continuation of Nasser and Sadat.

This moment also signifies the turn in Egyptian popular opinion since 2011. In 2013, huge numbers of Egyptians protested to ask the military to stage a coup against the democratically-elected Muslim Brotherhood government, which had grown unpopular. Many of the same youths who had fought for democracy in 2011 cheered when the military seized power that summer and slaughtered Muslim Brotherhood supporters in the streets. Public attitudes toward Mubarak are not exactly warm, but the idea of a Mubarak-style military dictatorship has become popular again.

And there is also a high degree of exhaustion with politics in Egypt. The economy is in tatters; years of protests and turmoil have ultimately left very few Egyptians better off. These are all reasons why, for the hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who protested to depose and imprison Mubarak in 2011, only a few hundred gathered in Cairo when he was released on Saturday. The public response has been mostly muted, and shows no sign of picking up, which says a great deal about how much has changed since hundreds of thousands of Egyptians protested to demand Mubarak step down less than four years ago.