(Updates with Brotherhood spokesman arrested in first paragraph.)
Aug. 22 (Bloomberg) -- Egypt’s longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak may be released from prison as early as today after a court ordered he be freed, while authorities arrested the Muslim Brotherhood’s spokesman amid a crackdown on the group.
Mubarak would be placed under house arrest, under a decision issued late last night by the interim government. That move may have been designed to mitigate outrage if Mubarak was to be allowed to go entirely free pending charges still being heard in court.
While Mubarak is unlikely to find a place in the country’s new political order, his release would inject more tension into the violent standoff between the Muslim Brotherhood and the government the military installed after deposing Islamist President Mohamed Mursi last month. Freedom for Mubarak would also provide ammunition to those who accuse Egypt’s leaders of seeking to restore the kind of police state Mubarak led before he was overthrown in 2011 in a popular revolt.
The military “promised the the clock wouldn’t be turned back, yet it’s 2010 all over again. Mursi is in jail and Mubarak is free,” read a posting yesterday on the Twitter account of the main alliance backing Mursi.
Egypt’s cabinet said in a note to reporters that Mubarak was ordered to be held under house arrest. It was not immediately clear where he would be held if he was released -- either at home or in a hospital given the persistent reports of his ailing health.
The development came as the government pressed ahead with its targeting of Brotherhood officials, an effort that has seen its supreme guide and his deputy swept up. In the latest move, authorities arrested Ahmed Aref, the group’s spokesman, Assistant Interior Minister Abdel-Fatah Othman said by phone. Aref was detained in an apartment in the Cairo district where the Brotherhood had held a sit-in whose break-up on Aug. 14 triggered a wave of violence that killed more than 900 people.
The decision to release Mubarak injects new challenges in the country’s already tortured effort to stabilize. It was the second time this week that a court had ordered authorities to free Mubarak, 85, who has been in custody in connection with various cases since he was ousted. This time, the court said he could be freed in a case accusing him of accepting gifts from a state-run group.
The order to free Mubarak do not stop pending trials on other charges against him, including his alleged role in the deaths of protesters in the uprising that swept him from power. He is facing a retrial in that case after a court overturned an earlier life sentence against him.
Mubarak’s ouster had fed hopes in some quarters that Egypt would emerge from his three decades of rule a more prosperous and democratic nation. During Mursi’s year in office, divisions widened as the country slipped deeper into poverty, with critics accusing him of cementing the power of his Brotherhood backers at the expense of the nation’s welfare.
Days of mass demonstrations against him, reminiscent of the protests against Mubarak, culminated in Mursi’s removal. His Brotherhood supporters have refused to accept that, and the nation has been mired in violence.
The military government imposed a state of emergency on Aug. 14 and a nighttime curfew that have kept the capital, Cairo, relatively quiet in the evening over the past two days. Protests have also been quelled for the time being, though Mursi’s supporters have called for new rallies on Aug. 23, Al Arabiya television reported.
The tumult has made it more difficult for Egypt to reverse the slowdown that has battered the economy since Mubarak’s overthrow. Growth is at its most sluggish in two decades.
State-run Nile News said Mubarak could be freed today, citing his lawyer, Farid ElDib, who couldn’t be reached on his mobile phone. The deposed president has been placed on a travel ban list, the prosecutor-general’s office said in a statement
Abdel-Ghaffar Shukr, a senior member of the main coalition that opposed Mursi, the National Salvation Front, downplayed Mubarak’s potential release.
“Mubarak has politically ended, he doesn’t pose any threat,” Shukr said by phone. “Just like Mubarak used the Muslim Brotherhood as a scarecrow to suppress the opposition and the popular uprising against him, now the Muslim Brotherhood is trying to use Mubarak to scare people.”
--Editors: Amy Teibel, Caroline Alexander