Egypt’s ousted president Hosni Mubarak was put under detention in his hospital room Wednesday for investigation on accusations of corruption, abuse of power and killings of protesters in a dramatic step that brought celebrations from the movement that drove him from office.
Mubarak’s two sons, Gamal and Alaa, were also detained for questioning and taken to Cairo’s Torah prison, where a string of former top government figures – including the former prime minister, ruling party chief and Mubarak’s chief of staff – are already languishing, facing similar corruption investigations.
The move was brought on by enormous public pressure on the ruling military, which was handed power when Mubarak stepped down on Feb. 11. Tens of thousands protested in Cairo’s central Tahrir Square on Friday, the biggest rally in weeks, demanding Mubarak and his family be put on trial. Many in the crowd accused the military of protecting the former president.
In a brief audio message aired Sunday, Mubarak promised he and his family would account for everything they own. He said he agreed to allow the prosecutor to contact governments around the world to take “proper legal steps” to reveal whether he or his family own any property or real estate outside Egypt. (CNN)
The detention is a new landmark in the stunning fall of the 82-year-old Mubarak, who only months ago appeared unquestioned in his control of Egypt after nearly 30 years of rule. Even after his fall, he seemed untouchable, living with his family at a palace in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
On Tuesday night, Mubarak was taken to a hospital in Sharm el-Sheikh because of heart troubles, and so that his health could be monitored as he submitted to a first round of questioning by investigators. Hours later, the public prosecutor announced early Wednesday that Mubarak was ordered put under detention for 15 days for investigation. State TV reported that Mubarak is suffering from a “nervous breakdown.” (CNN)
He was to be flown later in the day to a military hospital outside Cairo, where he would remain in detention, a security official in Sharm el-Sheikh said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media. But news agencies subsequently reported that the ex-ruler’s health had deteriorated to “unstable” condition, and it was not immediately known how that would affect his transfer.
The story dominated discussion in Egypt on Wednesday. One smiling taxi driver stopped in Cairo traffic, crossed his wrists in front of himself as if he was handcuffed and yelled “Mubarak ‘cuffed!’” in Arabic to strangers. (CNN)
Mubarak critics in Cairo cheered the news as well. “On the road to protecting the revolution,” said Mohamed ElBaradei, the former statesman and head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who became a critic of Mr. Mubarak and now a candidate to succeed him, in a Twitter message. “We now need to focus on achieving its goals.” (New York Times)
Abdullah El Ashaal, another presidential candidate and former foreign ministry official, argued that the military council ruling Egypt had acceded to the protesters’ demands to prosecute Mr. Mubarak in part to protect the military from public wrath. “The military wanted to put an end to all the suspicions surrounding it and to the accusation that they were with Mubarak and not with the revolution. Things had reached the point where people started to call for toppling Tantawi,” Mr. Ashaal said, referring to Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the military’s leader, who is now the de-facto head of state. “We want to see Mubarak executed,” Mr. Ashaal added. “Did Mubarak not execute the Egyptian people?” (New York Times)
Others were more cautious. “As gratifying as it is to hear that the unseated dictator has been interrogated and detained, we remain concerned about the lack of a transparent and predictable process for investigating and prosecuting past abuses, whether financial corruption or human rights violations,” Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and a leading civil rights advocate, wrote in an e-mail. “The only guarantee against politically motivated prosecutions and arbitrary trials is to establish a formal and credible process of transitional justice.” (New York Times)
The detention also marks a new chapter in Egypt’s still unsure transition to what protesters hope will be a democratic post-Mubarak future. Protesters had pushed hard for Mubarak’s prosecution, demanding what they called a clear signal that the corruption that pervaded his nearly 30-year rule would be definitively broken. Public outrage was widespread over allegations that large fortunes were skimmed off by top regime officials through shady deals over the years.
Beyond the anger has been the fear that Mubarak cronies are maneuvering to regain power as the country tries to work out democratic rule – and that the ruling military was not taking action to prevent them, or was even abetting them.
“I was so happy in the morning when I heard the news,” said Ahmed Maher, co-founder of the April 6 group, one of the movements that led the unprecedented 18-day protest movement against Mubarak. “All people are very happy because this step reassured them after a period of doubts and stagnation,” referring to doubts over the military’s intentions, he said. (CBC)
Worries over the military were intensified by a fierce pre-dawn raid on protesters in Tahrir Square on Saturday that killed at least one person.
The prosecutor’s announcement gave a momentary easing of tensions between the military and protesters. Following the prosecutor’s announcement, the coalition of youth groups that have organized the protests said it is canceling a planned new mass demonstration in Tahrir Square on Friday to demand Mubarak’s prosecution.
But the coalition underlined that there are still unfulfilled demands, including the dissolving of the former ruling party and the sacking of Mubarak-appointed governors as well as university deans and local city council, both seen as levers of his regime.
Activist Amr Bassiouny said in a Tweet that the detention was not the protesters’ primary goal but “free speech, free assembly, free press – no torture, real democracy, end of lies.” (CBC)
In its announcement, posted on the social networking site Facebook, the public prosecutor said Mubarak was under investigation into allegations of assaults, killings and injury of protesters, corruption, squandering of public funds and the abuse of authority for personal gain.
Hundreds were killed during the 18-day uprising against Mubarak, when people opened fire and cracked down on the crowds. Officials say 365 were killed, but a count by the Front to Defend Egypt Protesters, a group that provides medical and legal assistance to the demonstrators, said 685 people died as of March 7.
Over the past decade, Gamal Mubarak had risen to the top ranks of the ruling party and was widely seen as his father’s designated succession. Anger over that prospect help galvanize Egypt’s protest movement. Gamal brought into government and the ruling party a number of top businessmen who led an economic liberalization program that brought in billions in foreign investment but also widened the gap between rich and poor. Several of those businessman-politicians now face trial or investigation for allegedly using their positions to amassing fortunes. On Wednesday, Gamal said he was in “total disbelief” over recent developments. (New York Times)
The turmoil in Egypt has also spawned scrutiny of the U.S.’s role in propping up Mubarak over the decades. Egypt has been one of the top three recipients of American aid for years, getting up to $2 billion annually in economic and military assistance, while critics say U.S. foreign policy sought to deter democracy there because of the likelihood that Islamists would win any fair elections.