Egypt: Mubarak ‘to walk free’ as violence spirals

Delegates at a Berlin Amnesty International meeting wear masks                     depicting Nefertiti in a gasmask. Picture: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Delegates at a Berlin Amnesty International meeting wear masks depicting Nefertiti in a gasmask. Picture: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
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As the country he ran for three decades reels from violence, former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak – who is being retried for the killings of hundreds of protesters during the 2011 uprising that led to his downfall – could be released from custody within a week, ­judicial officials have said.

The officials said there were no longer any grounds to hold the former autocrat because of the expiry of a two-year legal limit for holding someone in custody pending a final verdict.

Mubarak, 85, has been in detention since April 2011. He was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison in June last year for his failure to stop the killing of about 900 protesters in an 18-day uprising against his rule. His sentence was overturned on appeal and he is now being retried, along with his security chief and six police commanders.

Mubarak is being held at Tora prison on the edge of Cairo, where senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood have been detained since they were arrested in a crackdown on the group that began in July, after the army removed president Mohammed Morsi, a leading Muslim Brotherhood figure, from power. Mr Morsi is also currently in custody, at an undisclosed location.

Yesterday’s announcement about Mubarak came as security forces said suspected Islamic militants ambushed two mini-buses carrying off-duty policemen in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, forcing the men out on to the pavement and shooting 25 of them dead.

Meanwhile, as European Union diplomats met in Brussels to discuss a response to the crisis, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, pledged to fill any financial gaps left by Western countries withdrawing aid from Egypt over the army crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood protesters that has left hundreds dead since last week.

Prince Saud also accused Western countries of tacitly encouraging Muslim Brotherhood violence with their criticism of the Egyptian military.

He said: “To those who have declared they are stopping aid to Egypt or are waving such a threat, the Arab and Muslim nations are wealthy with their people and resources and will not shy away from offering a helping hand to Egypt.”

Saudi Arabia’s rulers despise the Muslim Brotherhood, which they see as a threat to their hereditary grip on power.

EU foreign ministers will hold an emergency meeting in Brussels tomorrow to discuss how to force Egypt’s army-backed rulers into finding a peaceful compromise with the Brotherhood.

General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Egypt’s military chief, said on Sunday that the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood is needed to protect the country from civil war.

Yesterday’s attack on the police officers in northern Sinai came a day after security forces killed 36 detainees during a riot on a prison-bound convoy north of Cairo. Sinai, a strategic region bordering the Gaza Strip and Israel, has seen almost daily

attacks since Mr Morsi’s fall – leading many to link the militants there to the Brotherhood.

Egyptian military and security forces have been engaged in a long-running battle against militants in the northern half of the peninsula. Al-Qaeda-linked fighters and tribesmen have used the area for smuggling for years and have on occasion fired rockets into Israel and staged cross-border attacks.

The killings in the prison convoy on Sunday came as police fired tear gas to free a prison guard from rioting detainees. The detainees had captured a

police officer inside a truck, security officials said. The truck was part of a prison convoy of some 600 prisoners heading to Abu Zaabal prison in northern Egypt. Security forces fired tear gas into the truck in efforts to free the badly beaten officer, police said.

The Brotherhood said in a statement that it blamed Gen Sissi and interior minister Mohammed Ibrahim, who is in charge of the police, for Sunday’s killings. The group also called for an international inquiry into the deaths. Amnesty International demanded a “full, impartial and effective” investigation.

Along with the state of emergency imposed after Wednesday’s crackdown on pro-Morsi sit-ins in Cairo and the ensuing street clashes across the country, the military-backed interim government is also taking measures to cripple the Brotherhood.

Security forces arrested hundreds of Brotherhood members early on Sunday in raids on their homes in different cities, aimed at disrupting planned rallies to support Mr Morsi. The Cabinet also held an emergency meeting to consider banning the group.

A possible ban – which authorities say would be implemented over the group’s use of violence – would be a repeat of the decades-long struggle between the state under Mubarak and the Brotherhood. But it would probably diminish the chances of a negotiated solution to the crisis and push the group underground again.

“They think they can end the movement,” said Muslim Brotherhood senior member Saad Emara. “The more killings, the more people join us.”

However, the government blames Islamists for a series of attacks on churches and police stations, increasing public anger against the Brotherhood. In his first public appearance since last Wednesday, Gen Sissi made an hour-long speech on Sunday, in which he spoke about the motives behind removing Mr Morsi, who had won Egypt’s first free presidential election.

The general said the Islamist president exploited democracy to monopolise power and the military’s action “protected Egyptians from civil war”,

despite the ongoing violence.

“We will not stand by silently watching the destruction of the country and the people,” Gen Sissi said.

Israel: ‘Army is only way to restore law and order’

Israel is urging the West to stick by Egypt’s army in its confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood, quietly echoing warnings from Saudi Arabia against putting pressure on the military-backed government.

“Israel shares its views with the US and some European Union countries, and those views are to give priority to restoring stability,” a senior Israeli official said. “And like it or not, the army is the only player that can restore law and order [in Egypt].”

Israeli government officials have been speaking anonymously about the country’s concerns. Among those is any sign of weakened support for an Egyptian military that maintained close security ties with Israel even during the year-long rule of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.

The United States has postponed delivery of four F-16 fighters and scrapped a joint military exercise with the Egyptian armed forces, but has not withheld $1.55 billion in annual aid. That decision, one Israeli official said, “raised eyebrows” in Israel, which signed a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979 that has been underpinned by a working relationship between the armed forces of both countries.

But other officials insisted there was no formal Israeli lobbying in Washington to dissuade US President Barack Obama from taking stronger measures to try to curb the Egyptian military crackdown.

“When we speak [to US officials], we clearly say what we think. It doesn’t mean there is a campaign,” one official said.

Israel, hoping to preserve its peace treaty with Egypt, was muted in its response to Mr Morsi’s election as president, though Mr Netanyahu has been vocal in the past about his fears of an Islamist takeover in Egypt. In 2011, he said such a scenario represented a “tremendous threat”.

Israel sees Egypt’s armed forces as critical in confronting Islamist fundamentalism and dealing with attacks by Islamist militants in the Sinai Peninsula, which has a long desert border with the Jewish state.