CAIRO A medical helicopter Thursday flew former military strongman Hosni Mubarak away from prison a day after a court ordered him released, as two of the rival forces driving Egypt’s political crisis crossed paths in the street under the glares of gun-toting soldiers.
Mubarak was whisked to a nearby military hospital – where Egypt’s prime minster ordered him held under house arrest – seven weeks and one day after the army ousted his successor, Mohammad Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who won Egypt’s first democratic presidential election.
Mubarak’s release was technically required by law. But it added to the political tensions, as it was widely seen as the latest sign that Egypt is returning to military rule more than two years after the Arab Spring uprising that forced Mubarak from power, paving the way for Morsi’s election.
The 85-year-old Mubarak – clad in a white shirt, khaki pants, black socks and white loafers – was shown in a photograph released by the army being lifted into a military helicopter as he lay on a gurney, adding to rumors that he has been suffering ill health. According to the state news agency, Mubarak asked to be transferred to the military facility for his house arrest.
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Over and over, television news stations replayed video of the helicopter, which was labeled “Flying Hospital,” as it landed at the Maadi Military Hospital and two men dressed in white wheeled the gurney toward the back of the aircraft.
As Mubarak was carried out, an ambulance pulled up, blocking the camera’s view of him. Black-suited men brandished handguns alongside soldiers armed with rifles until the ambulance pulled away with the former leader.
For many, Mubarak’s fate has reflected the nation’s evolution. Within months of his ouster, he stood trial for the deaths of more than 700 protesters during the 2011 uprising. Images of Mubarak in a court cage, lying on a hospital gurney and listening to a judge read off the alleged crimes he committed suggested an Egypt transforming from military rule to a democracy.
Several armored vehicles and armed troops stood outside the entrance of Tora Prison, keeping watch over dozens of Mubarak supporters celebrating his transfer. They cheered and waved portraits of the one-time military dictator they associate with decades of iron fist-imposed stability. One man carried a poster of Army Gen. Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi, the minister of defense who announced Morsi’s ouster and has emerged as Egypt’s de facto ruler.
“This guy was treated unjustly,” Mufeed Saad, a 30-year-old hairdresser, said of Mubarak. “Things were secure with him. Now things are insecure.”
Saad’s comments reflected the nostalgia that some Egyptians feel for Mubarak’s 30-year military-backed rule. While he presided over rigged elections, massive corruption and a brutal security apparatus, Mubarak brought stability that has been deteriorating since the revolution that led to the ascension of Morsi and the Brotherhood.
Emad Hamdi, however, scowled as he threaded his way through the crowd. Like many Egyptians, he saw Mubarak’s release as evidence that the military is rolling back the gains of the 2011 uprising.
“Those people should be sad,” said Hamdi, nodding at Mubarak’s jubilant fans. “This is as if the revolution never happened. It’s as if the blood of the martyrs was spilled in vain and we are back to . . . dictatorship.”
“It seems we are moving backward, not forward,” continued Hamdi, the owner of a small clothing store. “Of course, there will be another revolution because the military is killing the people now.”
The rival views on display outside Tora Prison underscored the differences dividing this nation of 90 million. They show little sign of healing soon amid violence that has claimed some 1,100 lives – mostly protesters killed by security forces – since the army-backed regime launched a crackdown last week on Morsi’s supporters, suspended the constitution, declared a nationwide emergency and imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew.
Thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters have been arrested, including more than a dozen leaders.
State-run media reported fresh arrests on Thursday, including Ahmed Aref, a Muslim Brotherhood spokesman who was outspoken in condemning the coup on social media.
In a related development, the Egypt Public Prosecutor’s Office ordered an additional 15 days of preventive detention of the Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, Mohammad Badie, while it investigates new allegations related to the deaths and torture of protesters at a sit-in site set up by Morsi supporters, the Al-Ahram newspaper reported.
More violence was feared for Friday, when the Muslim Brotherhood has called for new protests to demand Morsi’s reinstatement and the end of the military-appointed transitional civilian government. Morsi hasn’t been seen since his ouster, his whereabouts are unknown and he’s been charged with illegally escaping from prison during the 2011 uprising.
The U.S. Embassy advised American citizens to “remain at or in very close proximity” to their homes because of possible clashes pitting Brotherhood supporters against security forces and anti-Morsi counterdemonstrators.
Mubarak was released after an appeals court ruled on Wednesday that he’d been held in pretrial detention for the two-year maximum allowed by law in a case in which he’s been charged with illegally receiving gifts from state media institutions.
He is currently on trial for the killing of demonstrators in 2011, and he also faces charges of stealing state property, profiting from gas exports to Israel and other corruption allegations.
McClatchy special correspondent Amina Ismail and Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this report from Cairo.
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