Egypt's former president Hosni Mubarak is transported from a military helicopter to an ambulance outside Maadi military hospital in Cairo on March 2, 2017 as he returns from a court hearing. (Mohamed El-Shahed/AFP/Getty Images)

Former president Hosni Mubarak’s acquittal in the killing of protesters during the 2011 Arab Spring revolt surprised few Egyptians and highlighted how the goals of the revolution remain a distant dream.

The ruling Thursday by Egypt’s top appeals court means that the ailing former leader could be released from house arrest in a military hospital, where he has spent much of his time since his arrest in 2011.

For Egyptians who took to the streets six years ago to denounce Mubarak’s nearly three-decade rule and bring him down, the decision was viewed as the latest blow to their hopes and aspirations, which have steadily eroded under the two governments since Mubarak’s fall.

President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, a former general who led Egypt’s powerful military when it ousted an elected Islamist government in 2013, has jailed opponents and critics, forcing many to flee the country or keep silent. In a nation where the judicial system is widely viewed as lacking independence, some feared that Egypt had returned to its pre-revolutionary ­order, at least in spirit, with the ruling.

“It’s a nice cherry on the top of the situation we are in,” said Wael Eskandar, an activist and blogger. “It vindicates the entire history of Mubarak’s corruption and dictatorship. It is a sign that this present regime is approving of all the past practices and there’s no need for condemnation.”

In August 2011, tens of millions watched as Mubarak was rolled into a courtroom on a stretcher dressed in prison whites to face charges of inciting the deaths of hundreds of demonstrators during the 18-day uprising that erupted Jan. 25, 2011, and ended with his ouster.

On that day, there was a collective sense that an Arab leader would finally be held accountable for decades of repression, even though the future remained unclear.

In 2012, Mubarak was sentenced to life in prison, along with his interior minister and six aides. But an appeals court later ordered a retrial. In 2014, the court dismissed the charges involving the killing of protesters, citing technical flaws in the prosecution’s case.

Thursday’s ruling by the Court of Cassation upheld that verdict.

Mubarak, 88, arrived at the courthouse on a stretcher, and as on that day in 2011, he was seated in a wheelchair inside a cage for defendants.

“The court has found the defendant innocent,” Judge Ahmed ­Abdel Qawi said after the all-day court session.

In January 2016, the appeals court upheld a three-year prison sentence for Mubarak and his two sons on charges of corruption. But the sentence allowed for time already served, and his sons, Gamal and Alaa, were released.

There were signals beforehand that Mubarak would be acquitted: His interior minister, Habib al-
Adli, and the aides were also found innocent by the appeals court and released from detention in 2015.

Tarek el Awady, a well-known human rights lawyer, said what has affected him even more than Thursday’s ruling is the “continuous stabs in the back of the revolution ever since Mubarak was forced to step down, and the people, our young friends, who still remain in jail or have been forced out of the country.”

“All of this is more painful and has been more surprising to us in the last few years, more than today’s verdict is,” Awady said.

He added that the verdict was final and cannot be appealed.

Victims and their families have no recourse to seek their rights, not even through filing a lawsuit.

“Nothing could serve them justice anymore now,” Awady said.