CAIRO — A Cairo appeals court on Sunday overturned Hosni Mubarak's life sentence and ordered a retrial of the former Egyptian president for failing to prevent the killing of hundreds of protesters during the 2011 uprising that toppled his regime.
The ruling put the spotlight back on the highly divisive issue of justice for the former leader — and his top security officers — in a country has been more focused on the political and economic turmoil that has engulfed the country for the past two years.
Mubarak, who is being held in a military hospital, will not walk free with Sunday's court decision— he will remain in custody while under investigation in an unrelated case. The 84-year-old ex-president was reported last year to have been close to death, but his current state of health is unknown.
A small crowd of Mubarak loyalists in the courtroom erupted with applause and cheers after the ruling was read out. Holding portraits of the former president aloft, they broke into chants of Long live justice. Another jubilant crowd later gathered outside the Nile-side hospital where Mubarak is being held in the Cairo district of Maadi, where they passed out candies to pedestrians and motorists.
The relatively small crowds paled in comparison to the immediate reaction to his conviction and sentencing in June, when thousands took to the streets, some in celebration and others in anger that he escaped the death penalty. Sunday's muted reaction could indicate that the fate of Egypt's ruler of nearly three decades may have in some ways been reduced to a political footnote in a country sagging under the weight of a crippling economic crisis and anxious over its future direction.
The court did not provide the reasoning for its ruling, but was expected to do so later. No date has been set for the retrial.
The ruling in favor of the appeal, however, had been widely expected. When Mubarak was convicted and handed a life sentence in June, that trial's presiding judge criticized the prosecution's case, saying it lacked concrete evidence and that nothing that it presented to the court proved that the protesters were killed by the police.
Mubarak's defense lawyers had argued that the former president did not know of the killings or realize the extent of the street protests. But an Egyptian fact-finding mission recently determined that he watched the uprising against him unfold through a live TV feed at his palace.
The mission's report could hold both political opportunities and dangers for Mubarak's successor, President Mohammed Morsi of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood. A new Mubarak trial would be popular, since many Egyptians were angered he was convicted for failing to stop the killings, rather than ordering the crackdown that killed nearly 900 people.
But the report also implicates the military and security officials in the protesters' deaths. Any move to prosecute them could spark a backlash from the powerful police and others who still hold positions under Morsi's Islamist government at a time when the nation's new leader is struggling to assert his authority over a nation reeling from political upheaval.
The mission's report could hold both political opportunities and dangers for Mubarak's successor, President Mohammed Morsi of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood.