'Mubarak Is Free and the Country Is on Fire'

Did Egypt's revolution just die?

CAIRO — Heshan Amin, a 24-year-old student, sits with his head in the hands, just a few hundred feet from Tahrir Square, where he and his friends fought the police during the Jan. 25, 2011 revolution. He had broken the government-imposed curfew to come here when news reached him that Egypt's toppled leader Hosni Mubarak would be released from prison.

"I feel like I stabbed myself in the back, I didn't know going to the streets to protest would give me such false hope," Amin says bitterly. "I have been protesting for change for two years and look where we are. Mubarak is walking and the country is on fire."

Egypt's prosecutor general announced Wednesday night that the release of Egypt's longtime autocrat is final. However, state media reported that the country's prime minister quickly ordered that Mubarak would be placed under house arrest -- part of the "emergency measures" instituted in the country after the military ousted President Mohamed Morsy last month.

Mubarak's release from prison is ill-timed: Violent battles between security forces and Morsy's supporters have rocked the nation in the past week, leaving hundreds dead. But however politically charged Mubarak's release may be, there is a solid legal justification behind the decision.

More than two years after Mubarak fell from power, he still has not been found guilty of a crime. In June 2012, a court did find him guilty being involved in the killing of protesters -- but that verdict was overturned when the court of appeal found procedural errors in the case.

As the aged autocrat awaits a retrial in that case, he ran out the clock on the maximum time in pre-trial detention allowed under Egyptian law, explains Hoda Nasrallah, a lawyer for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).

"Two years is the maximum period allowed for defendants accused of committing a crime that carries the death penalty, in his case the killing of demonstrators," says Nasrallah, who has represented protesters killed during the January uprising.

Since April 15, Mubarak had been detained based on other cases against him, such as profiting from export of gas to Israel, appropriating funds for the upkeep of the presidential palaces, and receiving gifts from state-owned press institutions. But at some point, Nasrallah said, those endless extensions had to come to an end.

By this week, the only pending case was the charges against him for receiving gifts from state-owned media. "His lawyers contested his detention, as he had repaid the value of the gifts [that the] state-owned news outlet Al-Ahram had given him," Nasrallah says.

Mubarak could still be re-imprisoned as the cases against him proceed. But whether or not that happens, his trial has still been a signature disappointment for those who hoped that the 2011 revolution would usher in a country governed by the rule of law.

"It has been a sham trial since day one, there has been a lack of political will and a commitment to justice," says Karim Ennarah, a member of the criminal justice team at EIPR, who has closely observed the case. "Thousands of testimonies were dismissed from the 18 days. We also have structural problems with the judiciary."

One of the issues, Ennarah continues, has been the judiciary's lack of faith in technology. Videos, Ennarah explains, are not trusted as reliable evidence by the judges, who fear they could be doctored. "They still get government experts to comment on the videos, who can be biased," he said.

Nasrallah says the case was quickly taken to court "to please the people in the streets" without collecting enough evidence, a move which hampered the trial from the beginning. Nor is it easy to prove that Mubarak was directly involved in the police crackdown during the uprising -- his defense team, after all, insists that he was unaware of most of the actions his own security forces were taking.

"They can prove that he didn't know about the security forces' plan from the beginning," Nasrallah says.

The largest problem has been that the same police force tasked with collecting evidence in the trial was the body largely responsible for the killings. This conflict of interest, Nasrallah said, meant that the police hampered the investigation at every turn. "[T]he prosecution had to do the investigating, which is not their job," she says. "They are not trained nor have the political will to do it."

Other state agencies have been just as obstructionist as the police. Egypt's General Intelligence Service sent the prosecutor general tapes that did not have any evidence on them, claiming the relevant recordings had been "taped over."

Nasrallah relates another disaster: A senior police officer said he "accidentally" wiped a crucial CD containing calls from the operations room of the Central Security Forces. Without such information, it is impossible to prove that the police crackdown on the street during the 18 days of revolution in 2011 was ordered by the top political officials of the Mubarak era

Even if he walks, Mubarak is due back in court on Aug. 25 for another hearing of his retrial. The timing provides an insight into the tumultuous period through which Egypt is currently passing: On the same day, six top Muslim Brotherhood leaders will also be in the dock - placed there on charges arising out of their opposition to the new government.

This has led many to fear the legal system is once again helping out the old regime. For the protesters who have been fighting for a new Egypt, it is hard news to swallow.

"Mubarak will be acquitted, it's clear. If that happens, I give up," says Amin. "To be honest, I don't think protesting brings anything anymore. In the end, it's just people sitting in the street."



Things Fall Apart

As the body count rises in Cairo, the Muslim Brotherhood insists it will stick to non-violent resistance. But even its members admit that they can't convince everyone to go along with the plan.

CAIRO — Farag, a midlevel Muslim Brotherhood member, swears he'll do whatever it takes to bring his freedom back. He braved bullets and tear gas in the raging streets of Egypt's capital on Aug. 14, after all, as security forces annihilated Cairo's Islamist sit-ins, resulting in at least 638 deaths. But he has no illusions about how this will end.

"Did you see the movie Schindler's List? Yesterday was exactly the same," he said by phone as he drove his car through a deserted Cairo on the night of Thursday, Aug. 15, taking delight in his subtle defiance of the military curfew in the capital. He had been caught in the center of the pro-Morsy protest outside the Rabaa al-Adaweya mosque when the crackdown began, as bullets whistled by him, inches from his head, and people dropped around him. "It was a new holocaust -- they were burning corpses in the street."

Even several weeks before bloodshed became Egypt's daily reality, Farag had already imagined the killings and screaming men and women. He knew the Brotherhood was ready to march defiantly against the security forces -- and that the police and Egyptian Army would be only too happy to greet the protesters with bullets.

Farag knew something else too. He confessed that the Brotherhood's star was waning and radical Islamists were on the rise. "The security thinks if they kill one person, three people will be afraid. But what happens is they create 10 more who are ready to die and others who want to take revenge," he said and then paused. "When we become armed, it will be a civil war."

Farag said that the option of turning to violence "is not a choice for the Brotherhood. It is not up for discussion even behind closed doors." He worried, however, about individuals outside the Islamist movement's chain of command -- the brother or father who turned to terrorism after his son was killed. Once the Islamist community picked up weapons, he said, it would be too late to save Egypt.

Friday's events are validating Farag's worst fears. The Brotherhood-led coalition against the new government called for protests it dubbed a "Day of Anger," triggering clashes between the security forces and protesters. The violence, which claimed the lives of at least 80 people, looks likely to fuel the confrontation between Islamists and the police and Army. The Muslim Brotherhood already called for a week of daily protests, which it vowed to continue "until the coup ends."

As sand-colored armored personnel carriers with mounted machine guns blocked the entrances to Tahrir Square on Friday, thousands of demonstrators converged on the nearby Ramses Square. Youths soon marched from the square to the nearby Azbekiyah police station, forming tense clusters around the building as one young Egyptian banged on a drum to summon more people to the front. It is unclear who initiated the ensuing clash, but the results were all too familiar: As gunshots rang out, bloodied bodies were carried back from the front lines to al-Fateh mosque, by Ramses Square.

Mohamed Soltan, an Egyptian-American spokesman for the coalition opposing the military, knows the potential costs of this resistance. While on the main stage of the Rabaa al-Adaweya sit-in while it was being dispersed on Wednesday, he said, he bent down to adjust his phone charger -- and felt a rush of wind as a sniper shot barely missed his head. The sniper didn't miss a second time, though: Immediately after, a bullet hit his arm.

"They're shooting at anyone who is taking pictures," Soltan said about Friday's violence. "The police have started another massacre.… If it started this early on, I wonder what they will do after the curfew. This is the military regime trying to force their rule down Egyptians' throats."

The Interior Ministry, meanwhile, said it was confronting "armed men" at Azbekiyah and also at other locations throughout Cairo. Sky News Arabia aired footage purporting to show armed men patrolling Cairo's May 15 Bridge. The security forces eventually opened fire in the area, causing some protesters to jump off the bridge to avoid getting caught in the crossfire.

Soltan said that the coalition would continue to advocate nonviolence, but made no promises that he could prevent all anti-military protesters from taking up arms. "In revolutions, you do your best to control the protesters, but there are always outliers," he said. "There were snipers all around us in Rabaa al-Adaweya, on top of the buildings. If we wanted to, we could have ransacked those buildings, but we didn't touch them."

There have already been several instances of Islamist violence throughout the country. Mobs have burned churches across Upper Egypt and stormed a government building in Giza, setting it ablaze. A Facebook page belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood's political party justified the attacks on the churches by saying that the Coptic pope "is involved in the removal of the first Islamist president" and was "the first to respond to [army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi's call to authorize the killing of Muslims."

Whatever happened on Friday, Soltan pledged, the groups opposed to the new government would continue to take to the streets. "The blood of over 4,500 martyrs will not go in vain," he said. "Even if you disperse today's protests, we will keep coming back tomorrow, and the day after.… The Ministry of Interior is the military's professional thugs; once they have been defeated, the military will have no choice but to back down."

For Farag, the Muslim Brotherhood has already become a bystander in Egypt's crisis. On Aug. 14, he said, crowds ignored the group as it urged people to go home. "It was out of our control," he said. "People were angry for blood after security burned our mosques and insulted our religious institutions."

Farag's attempts to find a middle path through the crisis seem increasingly out of place in today's more violent Egypt. His words had been a jumble of contradictions in the weeks before the recent bloodshed: He swore the Brotherhood was peaceful, but vowed they would die marching before the Army's and police's guns. He explained this was not provocative -- it was a matter of basic rights. He deplored the Islamists' turn to extremism, but believed that the Egyptian security forces' violence and the West's failure to take a firm stand against the coup had pushed the Brotherhood in this direction.

"In the long term, the international community is giving birth to people with no hope who will take revenge," he said. "The West is creating a generation of terrorists."

Even as the sit-in at Rabaa al-Adaweya was crushed, he said, he saw his former comrades become radicalized. These were people he had known and debated with about the need to push for gradual change through democratic institutions -- now they smiled cruelly at him, and he looked down at his shoes. Nothing was clear to him anymore.

"I am not the person you met before. I am angry. I am caught in a chaotic way," he explained, as he drove through the Cairo night. "I won't pick up arms, but I cannot blame the people who do."