CAIRO — Far from the cameras that followed him closely over six years of legal wrangling, Egypt's ousted President Hosni Mubarak quietly returned home to his family on Friday after winning acquittals and release from a Cairo hospital where he has been detained for years.
The 88-year-old onetime autocratic ruler now walks free, acquitted over his role in the killings of hundreds of protesters who defied his rule. He captured the world's attention when he stepped down in response to an 18-day uprising, and once again when he appeared — then jarringly — behind the bars of the defendant's cage in a trial that media dubbed "the trial of the century."
With muted street reaction, his discreet release underscored once again the failed aspirations of the Arab uprisings that swept across the region in 2011. The hopes carried by Egyptian activists that the former autocrat would be more severely punished for his abuse of power have been scuttled.
While Arab Spring uprisings led to the collapse of central governments in countries like Yemen, Libya and Syria, Egypt managed to avoid a complete breakdown post Mubarak. But since his ouster, heavy-handed rule has returned to the country in full force, and its economy has tanked.
For many, Mubarak's authoritarian rule for nearly three decades doomed any uprising to failure from the outset, given the depth and pervasiveness of institutionalized corruption under his leadership.
"Mubarak's legacy has been complicated by the gross crimes committed by his successors, but the abuses institutionalized under his regime — corruption, police torture, military trials, emergency-style rule, economic mismanagement— are the ones that afflict most Egyptians today," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director for Human Rights Watch.
Mubarak left the Armed Forces Hospital in Cairo's southern leafy suburb of Maadi, where he has spent most of his detention since the 2011 revolt, and was driven in a motorcade to his home in the upscale Heliopolis district under heavy security, according to an Egyptian security official. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Mubarak's lawyer, Farid el-Deeb, told the Al-Masry al-Youm daily that the former president returned home with his sons, Alaa and Gamal, and that the entire family, including Mubarak's wife, Suzanne, celebrated his return by having breakfast together.
His lengthy trial unfolded alongside a series of national upheavals: the rise and fall of Islamists in 2013, and the military seizing power with its strongman, army chief-turned-president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who won the presidency in 2014.
Many of Mubarak's opponents and supporters alike believe that since his ouster the country is now worse off. El-Sissi has restored military-heavy authoritarian rule and taken severe, purportedly corrective, economic measures that have left millions of Egyptians reeling.
A Mubarak supporter, Sameh Ahmed, whose business was badly hurt from the last currency flotation and devaluation, expressed his enduring loyalty for the former leader, saying: "Mubarak is my president."
"I hope Mubarak returns back to power," said Ahmed, "I was living in better conditions during Mubarak's time than nowadays."
Rights lawyers and activists believe that Mubarak's release is an illustration of the deep state restoring its power, rescuing one of its own.
"The trials, appeals and retrials — followed by acquittals — were only meant to buy time until the military took back power," said Ahmed Helmi, a rights lawyer in Cairo.
"There is a great deal of apathy now. The only reaction you can find on the streets is someone joking about Mubarak being back home," he added. "Mubarak's return home is just ... a tiny detail in the bigger picture."
On March 2, Egypt's top appeals court acquitted Mubarak of charges that he ordered the killing of protesters during the 2011 uprising. The court rulings capped three trials over the same charges of failing to stop the killings of protesters. He was sentenced to life in prison in the first trial in 2012, but acquitted in the two retrials.
In May 2015, a criminal court convicted Mubarak for embezzling funds earmarked for the maintenance and renovation of presidential palaces, sentenced him three years in prison, and fined him and his two sons 125 million Egyptian pounds. The ruling was upheld by another court last year, and Mubarak's release Friday was for time served.
Mubarak's sons also were convicted in the same embezzlement case and sentenced to three years in prison. They still face insider trading charges, but both are free and have made a series of highly publicized appearances where they were greeted enthusiastically by their father's hard-core supporters.
Prosecutors on Thursday reopened another corruption case linked to allegations that Mubarak and his family received gifts worth $1 million from the state-run Al-Ahram newspaper.
Mubarak, who assumed Egypt's highest office in 1981 following the assassination of Anwar Sadat, has spent virtually all the time since he was detained in hospitals due to poor health, according to previous remarks by his lawyer.
The order to release him was the latest in a series of rulings in recent years that acquitted about two dozen, Mubarak-era cabinet ministers, top police officers and aides charged with graft or in connection with the killing of some 900 protesters during the uprising.
Some of those acquitted have made a comeback in public life, while others partially paid back fortunes amassed illegally.
Funded mostly by businessmen close to the military, powerful media figures loyal to el-Sissi have systematically undermined the 2011 uprising, with several vilifying it as a conspiracy and its leaders as foreign agents who pose a threat to national security. They contend that the fallen protesters were shot not by security forces but by the now-banned Islamist Muslim Brotherhood group.
"If you compare Mubarak's regime with el-Sissi's rule, you could give Mubarak a human rights award. There were red lines and there was a ceiling to the repression. Now there are no red lines, no ceiling," said Helmi, who represented dozens of youths currently on trial over allegations of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Maggie Michael, The Associated Press