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Egypt’s Mubarak cleared in protesters’ deaths

Ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak sits in the defendant cage Saturday. (Associated Press)
Ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak sits in the defendant cage Saturday. (Associated Press)
Laura King Los Angeles Times

CAIRO – In February 2011, delirious and near-disbelieving Egyptians in the capital’s Tahrir Square danced and sang as they welcomed the fall of a dictator who had maintained iron control of this ancient land for the entire life span of many in the crowd.

But in a place where the past is always vividly present – if only as a glimpse of the pyramids on the dusty desert horizon – what seems consigned to history sometimes rebounds.

On Saturday, Hosni Mubarak, frail but still defiant at 86, permitted himself a small, tight smile of satisfaction as a Cairo judge pronounced invalid, on largely technical grounds, the charges that he had been complicit in the killings of hundreds of demonstrators who had fought to oust him.

With that, Egypt’s autocratic ruler of three decades’ standing was poised to perhaps soon walk free, while those who struggled to topple him – igniting the fires of democratic aspirations across the Arab world – wondered if their sacrifices had come to naught.

Egypt was not the first of the countries whose long-oppressed peoples threw in their lot with the so-called Arab Spring – the uprisings that swept a Middle East long beset by hidebound and repressive regimes.

But as the most populous Arab country, with its tattered but long-held prestige as the region’s intellectual and spiritual center, Egypt seemed to many a beacon that beckoned irresistibly.

In many parts of the region, that one-time flame has yielded only bitter ash. Syria has descended into a savage civil war. Oil-rich Libya is riven by competing militia factions. Tiny Bahrain’s Shiite majority, hoping to win consummate rights, still simmers. In strategic Yemen, the Obama administration lends semi-covert military muscle – as in a raid days ago – on behalf of a central government that has managed to maintain only a modicum of control.

And a former military man again rules Egypt.

American pressure to reverse human rights abuses under ex-general and current President Abdel Fattah Sisi – only mild to begin with – has faded almost entirely amid the current push to confront the militants of Islamic State.

Egypt is part of the international coalition acting against the Sunni Muslim extremist group that has seized large swaths of Iraq and Syria, although the Sisi government has made it clear that no ground troops will be offered.

For some in Egypt, the throwing out of the charges against Mubarak marked a despairing full circle.

“Thanks to the ‘prestigious’ court, you have brought life back to our revolution,” said a sarcastic Facebook posting by Shady El Ghazaly, an activist in the fight to depose Mubarak.

In the court case decided Saturday, charges were dismissed against Mubarak, who had been accused in connection with the killings of hundreds of demonstrators against his rule. Wearing dark glasses and a dark jacket, the former leader listened expressionlessly as the lengthy ruling was read out, occasionally nodding.

At its conclusion, the courtroom erupted in scenes of jubilation, with his aides and lawyers hugging one another.

Mubarak’s former interior minister, Habib Adly, and six other top aides were also acquitted Saturday in connection with the protester deaths – about 900 in total. The former president, his two sons, Alaa and Gamal, and an Egyptian tycoon, Hussein Salem, were acquitted on corruption charges stemming from a business deal.

The trial, initially followed avidly by Egyptians who were fascinated at the spectacle of the former leader’s dramatic fall from power, drew less and less attention as the procedure dragged on. Saturday’s verdict was the culmination of a retrial whose order dated from 2012, when Mubarak was initially sentenced to life in prison.

Separately, the former leader has been convicted of embezzlement and is serving a three-year sentence in a military hospital. But the dismissal of charges against him on Saturday raised the possibility – alluded to by the judge who read out the verdict – that he could soon be set free on the basis of time served, with those charges having been laid in April 2011.

Late Saturday, scattered protests broke out over the court decision, including some in central Cairo – though it was difficult to ascertain if they were in opposition to the verdict, or a continuation of Islamist-spearheaded demonstrations a day earlier.

Police drove back demonstrators with water cannons and tear gas.

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