Hosni Mubarak's lawyer sounded upbeat Monday night. Farid al-Deeb, one of Egypt's top attorneys, has represented the deposed dictator in the slew of court cases keeping him behind bars for two-plus years, on charges of corruption, abuse of power, and complicity in the killing of protesters. Al-Deeb called the charges unjustified, and the lengthy imprisonment “unfair.” But he said the situation would soon be rectified. Mubarak, al-Deeb predicted, should be walking free as early as Wednesday, when a judge may decide on whether he can be freed from prison pending trial. “God willing,” al-Deeb told The Daily Beast, “he will be released immediately that day.”
Al-Deeb has fanned such speculation in the past, only to see Mubarak continue to languish in jail, where his two sons, Alaa and Gamal, are also imprisoned on corruption charges. Technically, Mubarak’s release is overdue: he has already exceeded the maximum time in detention without conviction allowed under Egyptian law. Authorities have maneuvered so far to keep him jailed.
After al-Deeb embarked on his latest round of media hype on Monday, however, one thing became clear: with new powers now calling the shots, many in Egypt are taking the idea of Mubarak’s release seriously. Activists, legal experts, and judicial sources interviewed in the press spoke as if Mubarak’s release was a distinct possibility—if not as quickly as al-Deeb would like, then soon nonetheless.
Al-Deeb, for his part, remained optimistic as the news swirled Monday night. Egypt’s former strongman, he added, shared that sentiment. ”Mr. President Mubarak was always optimistic about his legal situation. Because he knew for sure that he didn’t commit any crimes,” al-Deeb said.
Word of Mubarak’s potential release was met with anguish by many of the Arab Spring activists who’d protested to force Mubarak from office. Mahmoud Salem, the blogger and activist who writes under the name Sandmonkey, mused darkly that, upon hearing the news, he and some friends had discussed “creating Facebook events for group suicides. That was the reaction.”
Salem pointed to one key reason that, in spite of the current buzz, Mubarak might stay jailed: his release could make the new government look bad. When Egypt’s army—which backed Mubarak, a former air force commander, for three decades—ousted then-president Mohamed Morsi during mass protests last month, it was careful to show itself as protector of the people’s will. And the protest movement that sparked Morsi’s removal billed itself as a continuation of Egypt’s Arab Spring revolution, saying Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood had hijacked it.
Egypt’s new powers, led by its army chief, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, have stressed repeatedly that the country will transition back to a democratically elected government as soon as possible. In the meantime, however, there have been signs that the Mubarak era may be seeing new life. Retired military officers have been appointed to provincial governorships, just as in the past, while Mubarak officials continue to play leading roles. Many of those who were staunchly against Egypt’s Arab Spring movement—known as felool, or “remnants,” after Mubarak’s downfall—have been recast as revolutionaries.
Salem says Mubarak’s release would deal the government’s narrative a serious blow, especially on the heels of a week of violence in which more than 1,000 people were killed. “It’s not logical,” he says. “Can you imagine if Mubarak got released during this circus?”
As Egyptians deal with the ongoing upheaval, however, some have reacted to the Mubarak news with little more than a shrug. “Mubarak is an era that is finished,” says Mohamed Mostafa, an activist who protested against both Mubarak and Morsi. “We can face different problems now. But not this one. We shouldn’t be bothering ourselves with the past.”
Nasser Amin, a leading advocate for judicial independence in Cairo, says the main problem with the Mubarak court drama rests with Egypt’s legal system. Egypt doesn’t have a mechanism for transitional justice, Amin says, and prosecutors must prove that he played a direct role in killing protesters—a difficult task, even if it’s clear to most Egyptians that Mubarak should be blamed.
Legal analysts, meanwhile, have long pointed to shortcomings in the different cases against Mubarak, which puts the ball in the court of judges when it comes to finding ways to keep him locked up. Amin, for his part, expects that process to continue. “They will play the same game that they played with him under Morsi,” he says. “They will find another case to start from zero and keep him in jail.”
With reporting by Maged Atef in Cairo.