March 24, 2017 | Policy Brief

Mubarak Freed, Egypt Shrugs

March 24, 2017 | Policy Brief

Mubarak Freed, Egypt Shrugs

Hosni Mubarak was freed Friday from a military hospital in the Cairo suburb of Maadi, six years after massive crowds ousted him in the seminal episode of the Arab Spring. The former president’s release, which just a few years ago would have been unimaginable, was met with a collective shrug by Egyptians, many of whom fear their country’s economy, security, and democracy are in worse shape now than even during the lowest points of Mubarak’s three-decade reign.

Since the revolution, the deposed strongman has been subjected to a seemingly endless series of trials. The first of them, launched just months after the revolution, led to a life sentence in June 2012 for complicity in the murder of 239 protesters. The image of Mubarak lying in a hospital bed in a courtroom cage encouraged many Egyptians that their former leader was getting the punishment he deserved. The election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi later that month further cemented the sentiment that the military’s six-decade grip on power was loosening (like his three predecessors, Mubarak had been a senior officer).

In June 2013, however, Morsi was removed by the military, led by defense minister and army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who soon assumed de facto presidential duties (and would be elected to the presidency the next year). The post-coup environment saw the courts show new leniency to Mubarak, and to his sons and cronies also facing a variety of charges over protesters’ deaths and corruption. In January 2013, an appeals court ordered a retrial for Mubarak and dropped the charges the next year. An appeal of that decision led to a final retrial in the country’s highest court, and Mubarak was acquitted earlier this month, paving the way for Friday’s release.

At virtually the same time that Mubarak was freed, a bomb went off in the same upscale suburb where he had been held, killing a man and injuring his family. The circumstances remain unclear – it could be an expression of outrage at the release or merely a criminal act – but it nonetheless served as a reminder of the country’s dire security situation. The bomb comes just two days after ten soldiers were killed in the Sinai Peninsula, where militants led by a group loyal to the Islamic State waged nearly 700 attacks last year, killing and wounding as many as 1,000 security personnel. Late last year, Islamic State claimed an attack on Cairo’s Coptic Cathedral that killed 29 people – the first time the iconic edifice had been bombed. To Egyptians, the current government’s assurances that the terror threat is under control increasingly ring hollow.

The economy is likewise in crisis, facing 30-percent inflation – the worst in a decade – and soaring prices. Terrorism is keeping tourism away, and the government seems keener on flashy megaprojects than the less glamorous work of sound economic policy. The jury is still out on whether a $12-billion IMF loan agreed in November can meaningfully ease the pain.

Finally, Egypt’s rights record remains grim, with tens of thousands of government opponents imprisoned, and tight restrictions on protests and NGOs. One of the country’s most prominent activists has described state repression as the worst it has been in decades.

Against that bleak landscape, many Egyptians cannot be bothered to pay much attention to the release of the man whose ouster they had hoped would set Egypt straight. If anything, in recent years a distinct feeling of nostalgia for the ex-president has set in. With so little in their country now going as they had hoped, Egyptians are inevitably asking themselves that most difficult question: Was it all worth it?

Oren Kessler is deputy director for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @orenkessler. FDD intern Thomas Peters assisted in preparing this policy brief.