Egypt’s longtime strongman dictator Hosni Mubarak was released Friday morning from the hospital, where he has been both prisoner and patient for most of the past six years. The 88-year-old returned to his mansion in a well-to-do suburb of Cairo to live out his days as a free man.
Mubarak’s release had been expected after he was acquitted earlier this month on charges of inciting the deaths of hundreds of demonstrators during the 18-day uprising in January 2011 that ended with his ouster. An appeals court overturned the 2012 court decision that found the leader guilty of incitement to kill protestors. That guilty verdict had come with a sentence of life imprisonment. The reversal of that order paved the way for his release on Friday.
In the years since the Arab Spring, Mubarak also faced charges of corruption. Those charges were upheld in January of last year, but the court allowed he had already served his time — three years — in that case.
Mubarak’s ouster, and his subsequent trials, were seen as a major victory for the Arab Spring protests that swept Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya in the early weeks of 2011. The brutal, repressive dictator that had held Egypt under his thumb for three decades, it seemed, was finally being held accountable for the crimes he’d committed against the Egyptian people.
His freedom today is in many ways the symbolic end of Egypt's post-Arab Spring hopes, even if the current authoritarian regime of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has been the substantive end.
“Various elements of the Egyptian state that Mubarak controlled or steered (the security apparatus, the military, the state-owned press, the religious establishment) are in firm control of the country for now,” Nathan J. Brown, a scholar of Middle East politics at George Washington University in Washington, DC, said in an email exchange.
“Any effort to dislodge them, reform them, or hold them accountable have completely failed,” said Brown.
The end of hope
After first ascending to power following the 1981 assassination of Anwar el-Sadat, Mubarak seemed almost permanently in power until the Arab Spring swept the region. The United States worked closely with Mubarak throughout his tenure, offering financial and military aid in exchange for regional stability and continued support for Egypt’s cold peace with Israel.
His downfall was quick and sudden. Over 18 days from mid-January to February 2011, tens of thousands of Egyptians flooded into Cairo’s Tahrir Square, inspired by pro-democracy uprisings in Tunisia, calling on Mubarak to step down.
Mubarak sent in the military to control the protestors, installed a curfew, cut off internet and cell phone service, and sent his security services into the streets to forcibly disperse the crowds. Hundreds were wounded, dozens — and ultimately hundreds — lost their lives. None of it seemed to dissuade the crowds. Government buildings and police stations were torched. Ultimately, Mubarak agreed to step down, leaving the military in charge of the country.
Egypt held its first free elections in 2012. Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, was the victor. But his time in office was short-lived: He was deposed in a military coup in 2013 that brought in Sisi.
Since seizing power, Sisi has launched a crackdown on dissent. In 2013, his security services gunned down more than 800 pro-Morsi protesters in a single day. He has labeled the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group and imprisoned thousands of university students. Human rights activists have given alarming accounts that the Sisi regime is "disappearing" hundreds of people — that is, illegally detaining and holding them in secret locations, where, it is believed, they are often tortured.
“What would be more telling than the release itself would be the absence of mass public reaction indicating not disinterest but the pervasive climate of fear,” said Daniel Levy, president of the US Middle East Project.
By any measure, Egypt’s revolution is moribund and has been for quite a while. But Mubarak’s release is still a powerful symbol of just how far the country has come, and how little seems to have actually changed, since those heady days of the revolution. The last vestiges of hope that the 30-year dictator would be held truly accountable for his crimes just vanished.
“While the 2011 uprising was centered around Mubarak as a person, Egyptian politics has now moved on. He is a historical figure and not a current political force,” Brown of George Washington University added. “Of course, some of the activists who led the 2011 uprising will view it as a nail in the coffin of their efforts — at least for the present. It has symbolic importance in that respect, even if Mubarak himself is not likely to be politically active.”