Wearing a white T-shirt and flashing a smile, Hosni Mubarak was transferred from prison Thursday to a Nile-side military hospital where he will be under house arrest, a reversal of fortune for the former president who was ousted by a popular uprising and is on trial for complicity in the killing of protesters in 2011.
The release of the 85-year-old Mubarak comes amid a sweeping crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood, which rose to power after the revolution only to see their Islamist president toppled by a military coup last month.
The latest twist of Mubarak’s fate mirrored the country’s rocky transition, with the longtime autocrat released from prison even as his democratically elected successor remained jailed at an undisclosed location. The release threatened to stoke tensions in the deeply divided country, reeling from violence and the unsettled politics that followed the military coup against Mohammed Morsi.
Many feared the decision to let Mubarak out of prison at such a tense time would serve as a rallying cry for Morsi’s supporters against the country’s interim leaders.
But there was little immediate reaction from the pro-Morsi camp, which called for street protests Friday against the July 3 coup, despite a sweeping arrest campaign that has seen hundreds of its leaders imprisoned.
On Thursday, nearly 80 Brotherhood members were taken into custody, including the group’s spokesman, Ahmed Aref.
Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi ordered Mubarak placed under house arrest as part of emergency measures imposed last week after security forces forcibly dismantled two pro-Morsi protest camps, triggering a wave of violence that has killed more than 1,000 people.
The decision came after anti-Morsi groups called on the interim leadership to use the emergency measures to keep Mubarak locked up, arguing that his release posed a threat to national security.
The decision to place the ex-president under house arrest instead of letting him go free appeared designed to ease some of the criticism and to ensure that Mubarak is in court next week, where a retrial in the killing of protesters in the 2011 uprising could place him back behind bars. He also is being investigated in at least two other corruption cases.
Footage on private TV stations showed the helicopter transporting Mubarak from Tora prison landing at a military hospital in the southern Cairo suburb of Maadi. Surrounded by armed troops in camouflage uniforms, he lay on a gurney, his hands grasping his head as he was placed in an ambulance for the short drive to the hospital.
Wearing sunglasses, a white T-shirt, khakis and white loafers, the former leader smiled briefly before disappearing inside the vehicle. As the ambulance drove away, guards, some with their guns drawn, ran after it, apparently fearing it might be targeted for attack.
A short time later, about two dozen protesters gathered on one of Cairo’s main flyovers near Tahrir square, the epicenter of the protests that forced Mubarak from office. Wrapped in white shrouds and smeared with red paint representing the blood of those killed by security forces, they acted out a mock trial for the former leader.
“We demand the retrial of the killers of the revolutionaries,” read a banner hung nearby. Another called for Mubarak, Morsi and military leaders to be tried in revolutionary courts.
Ibrahim Tamim, a member of the April 6 youth group that helped spearhead the uprising against Mubarak, said the mock trial was a reminder that retribution for victims of the uprising had not been realized and that people should not celebrate Mubarak’s release or Morsi’s fall.
“We are trying to remind people that the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood regime does not make Mubarak’s regime good,” said Tamim, wearing a face mask of one of the victims of the uprising.
Another youth group planned a rally Friday outside the country’s high court to protest Mubarak’s release. Activists and rights groups said the release is a reminder that none of the judicial reforms demanded by those who led the popular revolts against Mubarak and Morsi have been enacted.
Most of the regime officials, including Mubarak, tried for the killing of hundreds of protesters in the early days of the uprising have been released, as lawyers cited shoddy procedures and weak prosecutions and court cases.
Mubarak was held for several weeks of his two-year detention at the same military hospital where he is now under house arrest. His lawyers cited bad conditions in the prison facilities and prison authorities renovated the ward where he was later kept.
Security officials said authorities wanted Mubarak taken to the International Medical Center, a military facility on the desert road between Cairo and the Suez Canal city of Ismailia, because it is easier for police to protect due to its distance away from crowded areas.
But Mubarak insisted that he stay at the military hospital in Maadi because he was comfortable with the medical staff there, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Since his ouster, Mubarak’s supporters have released conflicting details about his health, including that he suffered a stroke, a heart attack and at times went into a coma. His critics called these an attempt to gain public sympathy and court leniency.
His wife, Suzanne, has been living in Cairo and keeping a low-profile, occasionally visiting Mubarak and their two sons in prison.
Outside the prison where Mubarak was held, a few dozen of his supporters gathered to celebrate his release.
“I am here to sincerely wish and congratulate our president, Hosni Mubarak, because without him we are truly nothing,” said Mostafa Mohsein, a supporter who was among a dozen who raised Mubarak’s pictures and chanted outside Tora prison.
“From the day that he left us, the country has been completely lost. We can’t work or do anything. The country is in a state of decline.”