The dictator walks

Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s ex-president, is set free. But his opponents remain in prison.

SIX years after the Arab spring, during which Egyptians toppled Hosni Mubarak, their president for nearly three decades, the country’s political regression can be summed up by its roster of prisoners. It includes Muhammad Morsi, who became Egypt’s first democratically elected president in 2012, and many of his fellow Islamists in the Muslim Brotherhood, who dominated the post-revolution parliament. After Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, then a general, now president, ousted Mr Morsi in 2013, the authorities also began locking up liberal activists—many of them the very people who had helped push Mr Mubarak out.

Notably absent from the list are any of Mr Mubarak’s former allies and, as of March 24th, Mr Mubarak himself. Egypt’s former strongman was released from state custody after three years confined to a military hospital in Cairo, in a room with a view of the Nile. Though he still faces an investigation into alleged corruption involving gifts from a state-owned newspaper, his release all but ends the protracted, and largely unsuccessful, effort to hold him accountable for the many misdeeds committed during his rule and its chaotic ending. He is now back in his mansion in Heliopolis, a posh suburb of Cairo.

Since his ouster, Mr Mubarak has faced charges ranging from corruption and embezzlement to conspiring with the police to kill hundreds of protesters during the Arab spring. He was convicted of the latter charge in 2012, and sentenced to life in prison. But the verdict was overturned on appeal in 2015, and a retrial ordered. He was eventually exonerated. So it went for Mr Mubarak, who eluded punishment in most of the cases against him—his fortunes improving as Egypt’s “deep state”, composed of hidebound judges, security forces and military men, gradually reasserted itself.

Mr Mubarak and his sons, Alaa and Gamal, who once seemed to be his father’s intended successor, could not escape one charge. The courts ruled that they had embezzled millions of dollars from the state in order to refurbish the family pad in Heliopolis and other private residences. They were given three-year sentences and ordered to pay $20m in fines and restitution. Counting time served in detention against their sentences, Alaa and Gamal were released in 2015. Mr Mubarak himself remained under guard until he was cleared of killing protesters earlier this month.

Throughout his legal battles, Mr Mubarak claimed that he was the victim. Said to be in poor health, he was often wheeled into court on a hospital bed and forced to sit in a cage like other defendants. Early on, his anger was matched by that of his opponents. But as Egypt spiralled from one crisis to another, and Egyptians faced more immediate challenges, such as an ailing economy, the pursuit of Mr Mubarak lost steam. Amid the chaos, the dictator’s supporters re-emerged, lauding the relative order of his rule.

Mr Mubarak’s release places Mr Sisi in a tricky situation. He has praised the revolution, despite being more authoritarian than Mr Mubarak, whose cosy detention was often seen as less about justice and more an effort to avoid digging up the past. It is not clear if Mr Mubarak or, more likely, his sons, who have made several appearances since being released, will try to make a comeback. Several Mubarak-era officials have re-entered politics in recent years.

The fall of Mr Mubarak in 2011 seemed to mark the start of a new era for Egypt. But although Egyptians united in opposition to his rule, their differences re-emerged during the country’s short-lived experiment with democracy. Now Egypt looks much as it did before the revolution, or even more repressive. The release of Mr Mubarak, while thousands of his opponents languish in prison, is emblematic of that sad fact.

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