NPR Story
4:33 pm
Thu August 22, 2013

Former Egyptian Ruler Released From Prison

Originally published on Thu August 22, 2013 4:10 pm

Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s former ruler who was forced from power by pro-democracy protesters, is in a military hospital after being released from prison today.

Mubarak’s ouster paved the way for the first-ever free elections in Egyptian history. His release adds to the volatility in the country.

More than 1,000 people have died in violence since last Wednesday, when government security forces violently cleared two encampments where supporters of another ousted president, Mohammed Morsi, had been holding mostly peaceful sit-ins.

Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s first democratically elected president, was ousted from power by the military.

The military government’s raid on Morsi’s supporters caused the highest number of fatalities in a single day in modern Egyptian history.

Now with the release of the man Morsi replaced, and with members of the military appointed to head the country’s provinces, many Egyptians are asking what the future is for democracy in the country.

Guest

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Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

The man who led Egypt for 30 years, Hosni Mubarak, has been released from prison and moved to a military hospital, where he is under house arrest. That's the latest news from a country that has been extremely volatile ever since Mubarak's democratically elected successor Mohammed Morsi was ousted by the military last month. Over 1,000 people have died in violence in Egypt since last Wednesday, when government security forces violently cleared two encampments where Islamists had been holding mostly peaceful sit-ins to demand the return of Morsi.

Joining us now from Cairo to put all this in perspective for us is David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times. David, thanks for speaking with us.

DAVID KIRKPATRICK: It's good to talk to you.

HOBSON: Well, I want to get to the news about Mr. Mubarak in a moment, but first, you've been there for three years. Tell us about the scene in Cairo right now.

KIRKPATRICK: Well, it's a very hard scene to describe, in part because it changes so drastically between day and night. The city recently, yesterday and today, seems to be coming back to normal. In fact there's more traffic than usual, although there's also a much heavier presence of armed forces and security people in the streets.

The traffic is more congested than usual during the day because at night, after the 7 p.m. curfew, it's a ghost town. And the streets are full of armed checkpoints manned by police and security, if you're lucky, or by armed vigilantes and maybe criminals if you're not.

And at the same time, while protests in support of former President Mohamed Morsi have pretty much vanished from the streets by day, they break out again every night in defiance of the curfew in certain neighborhoods around the city or just outside of it.

HOBSON: And what about how people are feeling? You've been talking to people there. What are they feeling about what's going on right now?

KIRKPATRICK: You know, it's very hard to get a read on that. The feelings are intensely divided. You know, we're in a situation here where people don't even agree on the most basic facts. I would say a majority of Cairo, although it's hard to tell, is convinced now that Egypt and Cairo is under siege from a violent insurgency organized by the Muslim Brotherhood, and it is locked in a sort of existential struggle against terrorism, and that's more important than everything else, including civil rights.

Another part of the population believes to the contrary, that the act of terrorism here was the illegal military coup that deposed the elected president after only a few street protests. And almost for my point of view, I have to say, it's extraordinarily difficult because anything we write will fall short of one of those descriptions of reality.

And so there is quite a bit of anger from all sides directed at journalists who are just trying to describe the facts.

HOBSON: Well, I want to get to that in a bit, but I first want to ask you about the news of the day that former President Hosni Mubarak has been released from prison and sent to a military hospital. What are people saying about that?

KIRKPATRICK: This is actually a little bit of a compromise. You know, he could have been released completely to his own recognizance. They've stopped short of that, and they're putting him under house arrest in a hospital. So this is an indication that they're willing to let him go, but they're still not quite willing to let himself show his face in public, salute his admirers, give speeches and interviews on state television and all that. In fact...

HOBSON: Well, is it a real question of whether he's going to come back into power there, or is that just something that may appear that way because he's being released at this time?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, it's not so much that he is going to come back into power. He's quite old. You know, I don't think...

HOBSON: Eighty-five, I think, right?

KIRKPATRICK: Yeah, that's right. He was on his way out of the presidency. But it's also manifestly true that many elements of his former government are back in full force, that a lot of elements of the old police state just snapped back into action really within minutes of President Morsi's removal. You know, we see the old security forces with a new spring in their step. We see them harassing men just because they have beards. We see them beating civilians with impunity in the middle of the streets.

We see officials of the former government now dominating the transitional government, economic advisors who were clear to former President Mubarak's son Gamal are now running the finance ministry. So there's a lot of evidence that the new regime is looking a lot like the old, old regime.

You know, I'm sure its goals are different, I'm sure that over time it will evolve in a different way, but it's not so much that Mubarak himself is going to come back into power, it's that the elements of his power have re-emerged.

HOBSON: Yeah, you write that the figurehead president, a judge, was appointed to a top court under Mr. Mubarak. The interior minister was a high-ranking official under Mubarak, the foreign minister a senior ambassador who served in Washington. So as you say, this is the old regime.

KIRKPATRICK: Yeah, and the interior minister is really a special case. He's a real profile in courage here because he not only was a senior figure in the interior ministry under Mr. Mubarak and in that sense probably implicated in quite a bit of police abuses, he was named interior minister under President Morsi. That means that at one point he had pledged his loyalty to President Morsi.

However, in the last days of Morsi's government, he did the opposite. He said publicly that his police force would do nothing to protect the president or his backers in the Muslim Brotherhood. And indeed they stood by idle as its headquarters was sacked by armed civilians. And now here he is, he's re-emerged in yet a third government. So that guy is a real survivor.

HOBSON: We're talking with David Kirkpatrick of The New York Times in Cairo about the historic violence and volatility in Egypt. When we come back, we're going to ask about the attacks on the country's Christian minority and what level of influence the U.S. now has.

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

Also in the news, the NASDAQ came to a halt midday East Coast time today because of some unexplained technical issues. It paralyzed the market. We'll keep an eye on that. The court martial of Army major and accused shooter Nidal Hasan is in its final phases at Fort Hood in Texas. Closing arguments begin today, then the case is set to go to the jury. These and other stories later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Back in a minute with Jeremy's conversation with David Kirkpatrick, HERE AND NOW.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOBSON: It's HERE AND NOW. We're talking to New York Times Cairo bureau chief David Kirkpatrick about Egypt as news comes that former Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak has been released from prison into a military hospital, where he will be held under house arrest. Mubarak's ouster from office had been a key goal of the pro-democracy movement, and just before the break, David, you were reminding us of the people connected to the Mubarak regime who are now back in high posts in the government.

But let's talk about the man who replaced Mubarak, Mohammed Morsi. He won Egypt's first-ever free elections. He was removed from office last month by the army. And he's now under arrest, facing charges.

KIRKPATRICK: It's really a remarkable situation, isn't it? You know, if you use your imagination, it's not hard to conjure up a picture of the two former presidents meeting in jail. It's - the takeaway here is really that the rule of law in Egypt is quite flawed. You know, we've seen a series of very heavily politicized court rulings about both of these president, first locking up Mubarak under funny charges that they were unable to prove, then keeping him behind bars on trumped-up additional claims and finally releasing him in a timing that seems political.

And now President Morsi, of course, detained before he was charged, never allowed to see a lawyer, held incommunicado at a location that we don't know. And the charges against him, which were eventually brought, are very implausible. He's being charged with crimes related to his own escape from an extralegal detention under President Mubarak.

You know, that - before, that seemed especially ludicrous because we all thought this was a revolution that had swept away the Mubarak regime, an extralegal detention for political purposes under Mubarak was certainly a badge of honor and not something that you could get in trouble for escaping.

But now, that is exactly what President Morsi is being charged with. And just to add a little extra spice to it, the allegations are that in his escape he collaborated with the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which is really quite unlikely.

HOBSON: Well, if the country is divided, at least to some degree, between those who support the military and what it's doing and those who support Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, how does it stack up on each side? How many people come down on each side in Egypt?

KIRKPATRICK: Boy, I wish I knew. You know, the capital is the area where the Muslim Brotherhood is weakest and its opponents are strongest. Even in the capital I can't get a good count of how many people are for or against. You know, in democracies, the usual method that we rely on is an election, and in the election he got a narrow majority of the votes.

But his opponents would say, well, since then everything has changed. There were street protests that brought out millions of people, perhaps two millions, they say many, many more, and that's evidence that in fact the majority of the population has turned against him.

There's no way whatsoever to measure that. The one thing we do know is that as you move out of the capital and further into the countryside, his supporters are likely to go much, much thicker on the ground. And probably even in the capital, I think we're beginning to see a growing portion of the intelligencia, you know, that's the small elite who are not Islamist but don't love the idea of a new military dictatorship, we're beginning to see part of the intelligencia say, you know, wait a second here, this is not exactly what we bargained for when we came out into the streets to criticize President Morsi.

HOBSON: There is one significant minority in the population there, and that is the Coptic Christians. They make up anywhere between six and 10 percent of the population. There has been a ton of violence against Christians and churches being burned and attacked. What is the government saying about that?

KIRKPATRICK: You know, it's an interesting case. Violence against Christians here is nothing new. Under President Mubarak, it was pretty much swept under the rug. That government was largely in denial that sectarianism was an issue in Egypt. They were all - they would always try to isolate or write away, write off those issues.

Now we see this new government trumpeting it from the rooftops because it's part of their public case that the supporters of President Mohammed Morsi are in fact violence terrorists. So they - every time there's an attack on a church, you know, we hear about it loudly, and we hear it blamed exactly on the Muslim Brotherhood.

At the same time, the police do not appear to be doing anything to protect Christians or protect churches. We have many accounts of bishops and church leaders around the country calling and calling and calling the local security forces to come and protect their establishments, and nothing whatsoever is done.

So the Christians are really caught in the middle here. They're getting it from both sides.

HOBSON: David Kirkpatrick, I finally want to ask you about the U.S. It seems as though Washington is watching and can't do anything about what is going on. You write in a recent article the generals in Cairo felt free to ignore the Americans first on the prisoner release and then on the statement in a cold-eyed calculation that they would not pay a significant cost, a conclusion bolstered when President Obama responded by canceling a joint military exercise but not $1.5 billion in annual aid. Does the U.S. have a voice?

KIRKPATRICK: You know, I am looking at Egypt state television right now, and up in the upper left-hand corner they have, in English, Egypt fighting terrorism. So they - the new government cares about Western opinion or they wouldn't bother to put that there in English.

But at the same time, it's been apparent to me for a while that the generals don't believe that the U.S. will take away that aid, that Egypt is just too important. They're betting that the U.S. will back the winner, whoever that is, that America's primary concern is stability, which they think they'll be able to deliver. And there's a lot of evidence that they're right. In addition to that, there's a couple of other diplomatic players here that are interesting to watch, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Both have been very actively I don't want to say supporting the military takeover but basically supporting the military takeover. Saudi Arabia arranged the donation of $12 billion in aid to Egypt within a day of the takeover...

HOBSON: Which is much more than what the U.S. is giving.

KIRKPATRICK: Yeah, that's a lot of money by any measure. And they've been very active in Washington and European capitals lobbying other governments to support this and encouraging the Egyptians to go ahead and crush the Muslim Brotherhood, which they fear at home as a regional issue.

The Israelis, meanwhile, have no love for the Muslim Brotherhood and have been actively lobbying on Capitol Hill to make sure that Congress does not follow through with its own threats to try to cut off aid to Egypt if democracy here is completely squelched.

HOBSON: And every time we speak with anybody in Egypt, we hear about how unpopular the United States is among the people.

KIRKPATRICK: Yeah, that's always been the case. That's always been the case. You know, for better or worse, we're living in a world where there is one superpower, and the U.S. has become the heir to quite a bit of sort of post-colonial resentment of the Western world. And then of course there's the fact that for 30 years, they really supported and stood by President Hosni Mubarak as he grew less and less popular.

HOBSON: David Kirkpatrick is Cairo bureau chief for the New York Times, joining us from Cairo. David, thank you so much for talking with us.

KIRKPATRICK: It's good to talk to you.

HOBSON: And we'd love to hear your thoughts on this. Are you watching the situation in Egypt closely? Do you think the U.S. is playing its cards right in Egypt? Should we be withdrawing aid or perhaps giving more to have a bigger hand in what goes on there? Let us know right now at hereandnow.org or Facebook.com/hereandnowradio.

YOUNG: OK, we have a quick second to let you know that tomorrow on HERE AND NOW, a much anticipated rock reunion. This weekend, The Replacements are going to play their first show in more than 20 years. You were five, Jeremy, at the time.

(LAUGHTER)

HOBSON: No.

YOUNG: That's tomorrow. Still ahead, what happened on Wall Street, NASDAQ coming to a halt, the market just completely frozen? We'll get the latest from NPR's Marilyn Geewax, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.