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Egypt’s Release of Hosni Mubarak Is a Symbolic Blow to Democracy

Six years later, Egyptians still suffer from many of the same grievances that led to the dictator’s ouster, analysts say.

By Massoud Hayoun


Former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak is seen behind bars during his retrial on August, 25th, 2013, in Cairo, Egypt. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

In what’s being hailed as a symbolic blow to the ongoing struggles for Egyptian and Arab democracy, Egyptian authorities have ordered that ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak be released from custody.

Hundreds of Egyptians were killed by security forces in the 18-day revolution launched in January of 2011 that managed to unseat the military dictator of three decades. But after his acquittal earlier this month over charges that he incited the killings, many Egyptians say his release serves as a bitter reminder that rule of law has not yet been won in the Arab Republic.

“Not only were Mubarak and his cronies not held responsible for 29-plus years of autocratic rule, corruption, repression, human rights abuses, and forged election — not to mention the nearly 900 people killed during the 2011 uprising itself,” says Samer Shehata, a professor of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, “the basic demand of ‘bread, freedom, and social justice’ — the major slogan of the Egyptian uprising — has not been met.”

In June of 2012, a post-revolutionary court sentenced Mubarak to life in prison for his role in the killings, but prosecutors subsequently demanded a retrial, and now he’s been acquitted.

In the aftermath of Mubarak’s ouster, Egyptians elected Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Mohammed Morsi to the presidency. But Morsi’s administration was toppled in a military coup a little over a year later, amid mass demonstrations against his government, spurred by a shadowy group called Tamarod or “Revolt.” The group was initially believed to have been created by democracy activists, organizing mostly anonymously online, but it was later found that the group strongly supported the nation’s restored military leadership.

“The basic demand of ‘bread, freedom, and social justice’ — the major slogan of the Egyptian uprising — has not been met.”

Following the coup, more than 800 Morsi supporters were slaughtered by Egyptian authorities in what is now known as the Rabaa Massacre of August 2013. In December of that year, the military’s interim government declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization.

On June 8th, 2014, Cairo declared that the head of the nation’s military under Morsi, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, had won an astounding 96 percent of votes for the presidency. Human Rights Watch and other international rights observers have continually condemned Sisi’s repression of Egyptian civil society and dissent.

Sisi has expressedresounding support for President Donald Trump, despite Trump’s attempts to ban people from Muslim-majority nations from entering the United States. Trump reportedly has business holdings in Egypt. Analysts have noted that what are now two rounds of immigration bans targeting Muslims have excluded Egypt and other Muslim-majority nations where Trump is believed to have assets.

After the tumult of the past six years, Mubarak’s release highlights the return of a military-led administration.

“I think it’s symbolic of how strong the counterrevolution has been,” says one Egyptian academic who has frequently written on sensitive political topics. “The overall lack of justice since 2011 as well as the continuing political and economic problems that are worsening as time passes all suggest that achieving the core goals of the revolution is unlikely any time soon.”

To discuss Mubarak now, the academic says, they would need to speak anonymously.

Pacific Standard spoke with several Egyptian nationals who declined to speak on the record, citing Cairo’s continued crackdown on the press. Egyptian authorities detained Al Jazeera journalist Mahmoud Hussein on December 20th, amid a ongoing campaign targeting journalists affiliated with the media outlet.

Underlining the symbolism of his release, Mubarak is expected to return to his villa in the upscale Cairene neighborhood of Heliopolis, covertly purchased from the government during his presidency, according to popular independent Egyptian news site Mada Masr.

The University of Oklahoma’s Shehata says that Mubarak’s release doesn’t indicate that things have come full circle in Egypt, though — the situation in the country has actually declined since Mubarak mandated relative stability with an iron fist.

“I think it would be a mistake to think that Mubarak’s release means that we have returned to politics before 2011. Things are significantly different today and worse in many respects,” he says. “Today there is even greater income inequality, poverty, and rising prices. There is even less political freedom and greater repression, with more people in prison for political reasons than in 2011 and less space for civil society and press freedoms.”

Human Rights Watch reported in its 2017 World Report that the military administration — both the post-Morsi interim military government and then Sisi’s administration — had “tens of thousands” of political dissidents. Egypt was the world’s third-largest jailor of journalists in 2016, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists advocacy group.

What remains after years of tumult since 2011, Shehata says, are many of the same concerns that brought Egyptians to the streets in the first place.

“The basic conditions that led to the uprisings are still present: authoritarian regimes, human rights abuses, youth unemployment and marginalization, etc.,” he says.

But still, for there to be any kind of renewed demand for good governance in Egypt, there would need to be more unity in what he characterizes as a deeply fragmented society.

“Now arguably more than at any previous period, the society is highly polarized between supposed-liberals and Islamists, often unwilling to recognize the humanity, let alone the rights, of each other,” Shehata says. “This also poses major problems for the possibility of democracy.”