An Egyptian court cleared Egypt’s former President Hosni Mubarak on Saturday of charges related to corruption and the killing of demonstrators during the 2011 uprising that ejected him from power.
The ruling dealt a blow to many Egyptians who took part in the revolution and who demanded Mubarak be held accountable for 30 years of repressive rule and for the deaths of at least 846 protesters who were killed during the uprising.
“The failure to hold Mubarak accountable for the deaths of hundreds of protesters, while Egyptian courts have sentenced hundreds of Egyptians for merely participating in demonstrations, is emblematic of the glaring miscarriages of justice doled out by Egypt’s judiciary,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch. “This is a fresh slap in the face to every Egyptian who believed that their revolution would bring fairness into their lives.”
The removal of the charges was seen as another setback for what is left of the driving spirit of the Arab Spring’s most significant revolution. Many of the institutional changes engendered by the uprising have been reversed.
Mohamed Morsi, the Islamist President elected in 2012, was removed by the military last year following a separate wave of protests. The current President, former military chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, has presided over a sweeping campaign on Islamists and other political dissidents.
Mubarak was acquitted in Saturday’s ruling, issued by a three-judge panel in the morning hours, of corruption charges related to the sale of natural gas to Israel at below-market prices. The head judge on the panel, Mahmoud Kamel al-Rashidi, announced that the charges of involvement in the deaths of protesters had been ruled inadmissible on a technicality.
Mubarak is currently serving a prison sentence in a separate corruption case and did not immediately go free. Sitting in the courtroom wearing sunglasses, the former autocrat showed little emotion in the televised hearing.
By late afternoon, several hundred anti-government protesters gathered outside Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the central site of the protests that forced Mubarak out in 2011. Security forces had sealed the entrances to the square. Demonstrators faced off with armored personnel carriers across a barbed wire fence dragged into place by soldiers.
“The people demand the fall of the regime!” the crowd chanted in a reprise of an iconic chant of the revolution. “Down with military rule!” Though nowhere near the size of previous Tahrir demonstrations the rally was a rare display in a country where the resurgent regime has criminalized unauthorized protest.
“I want to ask a question: How did they [the protesters] die?” said a demonstrator named Karim Abdel Wahab, standing in the crowd. “Was it Photoshop? Did they kill themselves?” He held a handwritten cardboard sign reading, “Where is justice?” As he spoke, the demonstration swelled. Later, police scattered the crowd using gunfire and teargas. The Interior Ministry said in a statement that it dispersed the protesters after Muslim Brotherhood members began fighting with other protesters.
The court’s decision was the latest episode in a lengthy and complex legal saga that is likely to continue as Egypt’s chief prosecutor announced Saturday that he plans to appeal the decision to drop the case over the protesters’ deaths. Mubarak had initially been sentenced to life in prison in June 2012 after being convicted of failing to prevent the deaths of demonstrators, but a court ordered a retrial on procedural grounds in January 2013.
The ruling was part of the complex interplay between Egypt’s judiciary and the government; at times the judiciary can appear like an arm of the government and at others as an independent state institution. Egyptian judges espouse a diverse set of philosophies and fiercely proclaim their independence from the executive. Some judges criticized Mubarak’s excesses while others supported the system that he oversaw. Many of those same judges have issued harsh sentences rulings against the dissidents and journalists under the crackdown under el-Sisi.
“This is absolutely a triumph for the old regime and for what has come to be called the ‘deep state.’ And the context for the trial has been political from the beginning,” said Nathan Brown, a political scientist and expert on Egypt’s judiciary at George Washington University.
Brown also said the politicized nature of the trial did not mean that the ruling was legally illegitimate, citing procedural and conceptual flaws with the investigation and trial. “A true prosecution of Mubarak — if the impetus had been based on criminal law and not just politics — would have required full cooperation of the security apparatus. The verdict is likely justified by the evidence presented to the court. But a true investigation of the Mubarak presidency did not occur.”