Egypt’s former autocrat Hosni Mubarak was flown from jail in a symbolic victory for an army-dominated old order that has overthrown and imprisoned his elected Islamist successor.
A helicopter took Mubarak from Cairo’s Tora prison, where scores of supporters had gathered for his release. He was flown to a military hospital in the southern suburb of Maadi, officials said.
“He protected the country,” said Lobna Mohamed, a housewife in the crowd of well-wishers. “He is a good man, but we want [General Abdel Fattah] Sisi now,” she said, referring to the commander who overthrew Islamist Mohamed Morsi on 3 July.
For Mubarak’s enemies, the moment marked a reversal of the January 2011 pro-democracy uprising that brought him down after three decades in power as one of the pillars of authoritarian rule in the Middle East.
But some Egyptians, many of whom have rallied behind the coup which deposed Morsi, expressed fondness for the 85-year-old former air force commander whose tight grip on power brought stability.
Judicial authorities had ordered Mubarak’s release. His lawyer said earlier his first destination would be a private hospital north-east of Cairo. The prime minister’s office said he will be placed under house arrest.
That decision was made under a month-long state of emergency declared last week when police stormed protest camps set up in Cairo by Mr Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.
According to officials of the army-led regime, about 900 people, including some 100 soldiers and police, have been killed in violence across Egypt since then,
The Brotherhood claims the death toll is much higher, with most of the unarmed victims being gunned down by the security forces.
Mubarak’s release also caused dismay among his political opponents.
“He should stay in prison. The country is facing obstacles so people are turning back to Mubarak.
“They don’t know what they are doing,” said Hoda Saleh, a veiled woman leaving Tora, where her brother is an inmate.
Mubarak was sentenced to life in prison last year for failing to prevent the killing of demonstrators. But a court accepted his appeal earlier this year and ordered a retrial in the case, for which he has already served the maximum amount of pretrial detention. He was arrested in April 2011.
This week, two court rulings in separate corruption cases removed the last legal grounds for his continued detention, although he will not be allowed to leave Egypt and his assets remain frozen.
At the Maadi hospital where he was taken, there were few signs of extra security apart from three police cars parked around the corner. Soldiers guarded the main gate, across a tree-lined boulevard from a Nile restaurant and boat club.
At the prison he left behind, Mohamed Hussein, a 36-year-old unemployed man waiting outside to visit a jailed relative, said: “We love Mubarak.” His sister Fatheya chimed in: “Isn’t it enough that for 30 years he did not drag us into a war, and let us live in dignity?”
A brief commotion occurred when the daughter of a jailed Brotherhood leader, Khairat al-Shater, berated journalists awaiting Mubarak’s release. “Why are you waiting for Mubarak?” Khadija al-Shater asked. “We Islamists are in jail in there.”
As several Egyptian journalists shouted at her to answer for the deaths of police officers in the unrest, she said she had been denied access to her imprisoned father. Asked if he had seen a lawyer, she said: “His lawyer is in jail.”
Mubarak’s release plays into the Brotherhood’s argument that the military is trying to rehabilitate the old order. The army-installed government casts its conflict with the Islamist movement as a life-or-death struggle against terrorism.