CAIRO — An Egyptian court ordered deposed strongman Hosni Mubarak freed from jail Wednesday, and the ruling was greeted mostly with indifference, the most stunning sign yet of how outrage over his iron-fisted rule has fizzled since the Arab Spring revolt that swept him from power.
Mubarak’s release, attributed to a legal technicality, would have provoked mass outrage in the months after Egypt’s 2011 popular uprising. But seven weeks after a military coup ousted the country’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, and put an end to its brief experiment with Islamist rule, some met the court decision with nostalgia for Mubarak’s order.
Hours after the ruling, Egypt’s military prosecutor invoked military law Wednesday night in ordering that Mubarak be placed under house arrest after his release.
The court decision comes amid a resurgence of the police state that he led for three decades and an intensifying government crackdown on his old foes in the Muslim Brotherhood.
The ruling could further inflame supporters of the Islamist opposition. About 1,000 civilians have been killed since security forces broke up two pro-
Morsi sit-ins in Cairo last week.
The court ordered Mubarak’s release after the 85-year-old former president agreed to return or pay the value of gifts he received from state news organizations while in office, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry said. The Egyptian prosecutor’s office said Mubarak’s assets would remain frozen.
It was the only active case among the three brought against him since his ouster. Judicial authorities accepted Mubarak’s appeal for a retrial on separate charges of corruption and killing protesters during the Arab Spring uprising. Other charges related to the renovation of the presidential palace are pending but do not require his detention because his family put up some property as bond.
Under Egyptian law, suspects cannot be held for more than two years without a conviction, said Badr Abdellaty, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry. Mubarak has reached the two-year limit, Abdellaty said. “So he can stay at home,” the spokesman said. Mubarak is to return to court for his remaining judicial proceedings.
The prosecutor’s office, part of a judiciary that critics have long accused of being stacked with Mubarak allies, said that the court’s decision was final and that it could not be appealed. Legal experts said Wednesday that Mubarak could leave Cairo’s Tora prison within hours.
“The prosecution has no legal ground to appeal the decision of his release, as Mubarak paid the money he took, and has no legal ground for his detention,” said Yassir Mohammad Sayyid Ahmad, a lawyer who represents families of Egyptians killed by Mubarak’s security forces during the 18-day uprising in 2011, which left more than 800 people dead.
Some of those who participated in Egypt’s revolt, which began Jan. 25, 2011, said Wednesday that they were appalled by the news of Mubarak’s imminent release.
“It’s the end of the 25th of January revolution,” said Walid Ibrahim, 29, a bookstore worker in downtown Cairo who had joined the mass demonstrations more than two years ago. “Because the 25th of January revolution was against the Mubarak regime. The problem with the 25th of January is that it didn’t topple the regime, just the head of it.”
A colleague, Mahmoud Mohammed, 31, shouted from across the room: “We have woken up and found ourselves exactly where we were three years ago.”
“He was tried by his own justice system,” another employee said.
But other Egyptians, who have been widely supportive of the military’s July 3 coup against Morsi, said they were too focused on the ongoing political crisis to get upset about Mubarak. In a sign of how volatile politics have become since the 2011 uprising, some even recalled with longing the three-decade reign of Mubarak, who kept his political opposition tightly repressed. The rampant corruption of his government and other abuses have faded in the popular memory.
“Under Mubarak, we had security. We felt secure about our wives, our children walking on the street. Not anymore,” said Mohammed al-Laban, a chauffeur for a private company, who was sitting with friends at an outdoor cafe in downtown Cairo.
The Mubarak era was “a closed case,” he said. “The main feeling for all Egyptians is confusion and worry” about the newer political developments.
Crime and street-level violence have soared since Mubarak’s overthrow, as his once-
ubiquitous police force melted away. In recent weeks, empowered by the ouster of Morsi and the return of the Mubarak regime’s generals to power, the police also have returned with a vengeance.
On Wednesday, the military-backed interim government checked another name off its wanted list as the crackdown on Morsi’s supporters intensified. Security forces arrested a prominent Islamist cleric as he tried to flee the country. Safwat Hegazy, who has been charged with inciting violence, was seized by police in the oasis town of Siwa near the border with Libya, the government said. Abdellaty, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said Hegazy had shaved all his hair, leaving just a goatee.
The state has thrown most of the Muslim Brotherhood’s top officials in jail, holding them virtually incommunicado under a host of charges that the group deems politically motivated. Other prominent Islamist leaders are on the run.
European Union foreign ministers agreed Wednesday to temporarily suspend exports to Egypt of “any equipment used for internal repression,” E.U. foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told reporters in Brussels after the meeting.
But the suspension will have little practical effect, because Europe’s major arms-exporting countries have already put shipments on hold. The E.U. foreign ministers stopped short of halting civilian aid to Egypt, with many of them saying that such a cutoff would harm only ordinary Egyptians.
Speaking at a news conference in Cairo hours after the court ordered Mubarak’s release, interim Prime Minister Hazem el-
Beblawi said the country would press ahead with plans for a new constitution, as well as parliamentary and presidential elections. The state would form a “working group” of government officials, politicians and civil society groups to facilitate that process, he said.
“But this does not mean that those whose hands are contaminated by blood are invited, or that those who committed violence or terrorism are invited,” he added, in a reference to the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government has accused of terrorism.
Amer Shakhatreh and Sharaf al-Hourani in Cairo and Michael Birnbaum in Berlin contributed to this report.