Supporters of Hosni Mubarak cheer in a Cairo courtroom after judges ordered… (Khaled Elfiqi / European…)
CAIRO — Former President Hosni Mubarak was granted a new murder trial by an Egyptian appeals court Sunday, a ruling that threatens fresh political turmoil as the country braces for parliamentary elections amid widening economic hardship.
The decision overturned life sentences for Mubarak and his interior minister, Habib Adli, for complicity in the deaths of more than 850 protesters during the 2011 uprising. Both men face other criminal investigations and are expected to remain in detention until the new trial.
Egypt has been steeped in crisis between Islamists and largely secular forces since Mubarak's overthrow nearly two years ago. The court's decision means revisiting a bloody chapter in the rebellion and raising the prospect that Mubarak, whose police state ruled for 30 years, may be absolved or, just as possibly, sentenced to death in a case that magnified the country's differences and captivated the Arab world.
Despite his downfall, Mubarak, 84, still lurks in the national psyche, peering through the wire mesh of his defendant's cage at his trial last year or angering his fellow Egyptians as court cases tell of billions of dollars' worth of corruption. He serves as a reminder that the legacy of an autocrat is not easily scoured away and that a revolution is a painstaking and volatile work in progress.
Mubarak's fate will be a test for the Islamist-led government of President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi had been pushing for a retrial to win harsher sentences against Mubarak's inner circle. The Brotherhood hopes the case will rouse passions against the old guard and help Islamist candidates overcome public anger at the deteriorating economy in parliamentary elections expected this spring.
The retrial would also sharpen the focus on the nation's beleaguered court system, which was weakened by a Morsi power grab in November and has been criticized by Mubarak's supporters and opponents over questions of fairness. Reopening the legal drama fans the suspicions of many Egyptians that a "deep state" of Mubarak loyalists still controls the judiciary and security agencies.
The court did not explain its ruling and gave no date for the retrial.
"The previous ruling was unfair and illegal," said Yousry Abdelrazeq, one of Mubarak's lawyers, who accused the judge in the trial of political bias. "The case was just a mess and there was no evidence against Mubarak."
Mubarak and Adli were convicted of not preventing the deaths of hundreds of protesters attacked by police and snipers during the uprising, which began on Jan. 25, 2011, and ended 18 days later when the military seized power. Six senior security officials were acquitted in the same trial. They will also be retried.
Mubarak argued that he had not ordered the crackdown and was unaware of the extent of the violence. A recent government-backed investigation, however, found that Mubarak had monitored the deadly response by security forces in Tahrir Square via a television feed. The investigation, which is expected to be considered at the new trial, also implicated the powerful military, a development that could complicate Morsi's delicate relationship with the generals.
"This appeal can be a good thing. We hope this time they get the harshest of sentences, which would be the death penalty," said Ali Gindi, whose son, Islam, was killed in Suez during the revolt. "There is new evidence against Mubarak and Adli now. I have hope but I am very worried because not all members of our judiciary are honest. Some were part of Mubarak's regime."
Legal experts criticized the first trial for fistfights that occurred in the courtroom, recanted testimony by prosecution witnesses and the presiding judge's comments that the court had no definitive evidence linking Mubarak to the bloodshed. The prosecution argued that Mubarak had consolidated his power over decades and that any action by security forces would have had to have been sanctioned by him.
"The trial was a disappointment from the beginning of the investigation until the verdict," said Hoda Nasrallah, a lawyer working with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. "What we saw after was just a superficial investigation marred by neglect."
Mubarak's detractors are pressing for a murder conviction confirming that he directly orchestrated the police response. His backers argue that he is the victim of a conspiracy to disgrace the former government and benefit Morsi and the Brotherhood.
"There is nothing in the law which states that incitement against protesters is a crime," said Abdelrazeq. "Even if he knew that protesters had fallen, he couldn't have done anything to prevent it. Did we expect him to stand in Tahrir Square with a club fending off the attackers?"
The court ruling came a day after prosecutors announced an investigation into allegations that Mubarak received about $1 million in illicit gifts from Al Ahram, the country's leading state-owned newspaper. The former president has reportedly been in a military hospital since December after he fell in a prison bathroom and injured himself.
"It was God's will that [the retrial] will recur under Morsi's rule with the availability of new evidence and other defendants," said Essam Erian, vice chairman of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party. The group's website quoted legal experts as saying the new trial "opens the door for a death sentence."
Last year's trial riveted the nation with images of the aging Mubarak wheeled into the courtroom on a stretcher, his arms crossed, his eyes hidden behind sunglasses and his sons, Alaa and Gamal, both accused of corruption, standing in prison whites at his side.
Abdellatif is a special correspondent.