CAIRO – A court ruling Monday raised the possibility of jailed ex-president Hosni Mubarak walking free soon, a move that would fuel the unrest roiling the country after the autocratic leader’s successor was removed in a military coup.
Underscoring the growing anger over Mohammed Morsi’s ouster, suspected Islamic militants ambushed two minibuses carrying off-duty policemen in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, forcing the men to lie on the sand and shooting 25 of them dead.
“They were marked in advance by the attackers,” said Ashraf Abdullah, who heads the police branch the victims belonged to. He said the assailants checked the IDs of the men, who were not in uniform, to ensure they were policemen before opening fire.
The brazen daylight attack raised fears that the strategic desert region bordering Israel and the Gaza Strip could be plunged into a full-fledged insurgency.
In a separate development early today, police detained the supreme leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group from which Morsi hails, according to security officials and state television. They said Mohammed Badie was captured in an apartment in the eastern Cairo district of Nasr City. That’s where Morsi’s supporters held a six-week sit-in protest that was cleared by security forces last Wednesday.
The private ONTV network showed footage of a man the network said was Badie after his arrest. In the footage, a somber-looking Badie in an off-white Arab robe, or galabiyah, sits motionless on a sofa as a man in civilian clothes holding an assault rifle stands nearby.
Badie and his powerful deputy Khairat el-Shater, who is in custody, go on trial later this month for their alleged role in the killing of eight protesters outside the Brotherhood’s Cairo headquarters in June. His arrest is a serious blow to the group at a time when authorities are cracking down on its leaders and mid-ranking officials, detaining scores of them across the country.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The 25 slain police officers were given a funeral with full military honors presided over by Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim, who is in charge of the police, and the army’s chief of staff, Gen. Sedki Sobhi.
In a show of solidarity, the men’s coffins, draped in red, white and black Egyptian flags, were jointly carried by army soldiers and policemen, and interim President Adly Mansour declared a nationwide state of mourning to mark their deaths.
Despite the violence, Cairo, a bustling metropolis of some 18 million people, began to regain a sense of normalcy, although the capital remained under a state of emergency and a dusk-to-dawn curfew.
Daytime traffic was back to its normal congested levels and stores were open. Government employees returned to work and the Central Bank ordered banks, which were operating on a reduced 9 a.m.-noon schedule, to remain open for an additional hour today. A handful of protests erupted in various parts of the city, but they were small and led to no violence.
Mubarak, 85, has been in detention since April 2011, two months after he was ousted in a revolution against his rule.
He was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison last year for failing to stop the killing of some 900 protesters in the 18-day uprising. His sentence was overturned on appeal and he is now being retried.
Two judicial officials said Mubarak could walk free this week or next after a criminal court on Monday ordered his release in a corruption case in which he and his two sons were accused of embezzling funds for the maintenance of presidential palaces. His sons were ordered to be kept in custody.
Monday’s ruling, along with the fact that Mubarak had previously been ordered released in the killings of the protesters, opened the possibility of freedom for the former president, the officials said.
There will no longer be any grounds to hold him if a court accepts a petition by his lawyer requesting his release in a third case later this week or next.
Many analysts, however, expressed skepticism, saying the political cost of freeing the former leader, who was widely hated for abuses and repression during his 29 years in power, could keep him in jail.
Freeing Mubarak during one of the worst bouts of turmoil since his ouster would be a huge risk for the military-backed government. It could lend credibility to allegations that the mass protests that preceded the July 3 coup that toppled Egypt’s first democratically elected leader were the work of Mubarak-era figures searching for a way to reinstate the former regime.