Cleared in Cairo

Mubarak’s Acquittal Signals Complete Triumph of Military Over Arab Spring

Verdict leaves supporters cheering and opponents gnashing their teeth in frustration. Make no mistake: Egypt’s oppressive “deep state” is back.

11.29.14 3:00 PM ET

Almost four years after former dictator Hosni Mubarak was swept from power, a court dismissed charges against him in the killing of more than 200 protesters during the 2011 popular uprising that ended his three-decade rule. The Cairo courtroom where the decision was announced was packed with his supporters and they erupted in cheers, but outside his opponents bewailed a decision they say marks the apogee of a counter-revolution supervised by the deposed strongman’s onetime head of military intelligence: Abdel Fatah el-Sisi, elected the country’s president in May.

The ruling also cleared Mubarak along with his sons, Alaa and Gamal, of corruption charges relating to the sale of gas to Israel. And in a clean sweep marking what Egyptian democracy activists say emphasizes the comeback of the “deep state” of the Mubarak era, the court acquitted a former interior minister and six top security chiefs of conspiring to murder protesters in an Arab Spring uprising that saw more than 800 protesters killed and at least 2000 injured.

The judge overseeing the case, Mahmoud Kamel al-Rashidi, said the charges against the ailing 86-year-old Mubarak—he was accused of “inciting, arranging and assisting to kill peaceful protesters”—were politically motivated and that his conviction in June 2012 was flawed. He also cited several other technicalities. Shortly after the charges were dismissed, Mubarak’s chief lawyer was photographed lighting up a cigar. The country’s chief prosecutor says he will appeal the decision. 

Othman al-Hefnawy, a lawyer representing families of those who died, said the verdict raises the question: if Mubarak and his aides weren’t responsible for protesters’ deaths, then who was?

The retrial of a case that had resulted in Mubarak and his co-conspirators receiving life sentences was ordered by an appeals court last year on a technicality. Today’s decision—it is recorded in a 1,400-page ruling—wasn’t unexpected. “Mubarak’s acquittal was about as surprising as Sisi becoming President,” tweeted Arab Spring activist Iyad El-Baghdadi.

Amr Dalsh/Reuters

But today’s ruling stands in marked contrast to the Egyptian judiciary’s handling of the jailing of hundreds of Islamists and leftwing activists who protested the military-led toppling of Mubarak’s democratically-elected successor, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi. He is standing trial along with several Islamist leaders on charges of violence connected to the 2011 uprising and stemming from clashes during his own ouster.

As the ruling was read out, the former strongman’s supporters in the courtroom cheered and clapped. Mubarak was present, wheeled in on a hospital trolley and wearing his trademark sunglasses. His sons kissed his forehead as the judge announced the verdict. Outside, pro-Mubarak supporters also celebrated, outnumbering protesters, many from families who had lost relatives in the 2011 uprising.

 Mubarak's lawyer, Farid al-Deeb, says the verdict was a “good ruling that proved the integrity of Mubarak's era."

“This is a political verdict,” the father of nineteen-year-old Ahmed Khaleefa, who was killed in 2011, told Reuters. “The verdict hit us like bullets.” Bereaved relatives held photos of protesters killed by the security forces during the 2011 revolution and screamed Mubarak should be executed.

Speaking briefly by phone after the ruling to a privately owned satellite TV station, Mubarak welcomed the verdict and denied any complicity in the slaying of protesters, blaming unnamed culprits for the deaths. He has long blamed Islamists and others, including armed Palestinian factions, for the bloodletting, claiming the 2011 violence was the work of his foes to make his regime look bad and incite more protests against him.

Mubarak will remain in an army hospital, where has been held since his ouster. He remains serving a three-year sentence for embezzlement that he was convicted on in May. But his legal team is now pushing for a speedy release, arguing he has been in detention since his ouster and it should be counted as time served.  

While activists across the political spectrum will fume at the ruling, it isn’t a given that most Egyptians will react badly. Economic hardship and the political violence that has engulfed Egypt since the Arab Spring has exhausted them, prompting nostalgia for the Mubarak era—or at least a longing for the greater predictability of strong rule, something that has helped Sisi to clamp down on political activism and dissent.

And it isn’t clear there will be much protest at the ruling from the Obama administration, which in recent months has quieted its calls for democracy in a country it now needs to combat the growing reach of the self-styled Islamic State. Angered by America’s curtailing of military aid as punishment for the bloody repression of Islamists and its criticisms over alleged human rights violations, Sisi and his generals last year threatened a “strategic realignment” away from America, saying they were determined to emphasize their ties with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries who lavished financial assistance on Cairo after the military toppled Morsi. Sisi also made nice with Russia.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been seeking to repair strained relations with Cairo by emphasizing Egypt and America’s mutual interest in the face of jihadist insurgencies. While the Obama administration doesn’t want to be seen acquiescing to crackdown’s. U.S. officials say neither do they want relations with Egypt to worsen.