CAIRO – A court in Egypt granted bond Monday to the country’s former autocratic ruler, Hosni Mubarak, raising the prospect that he could be released from jail within days — potentially escalating the political crisis in the Arab world’s most populous nation.
Mubarak, 85, is unlikely to return to politics if freed. His health has been poor, and he still faces a host of legal problems, including a new trial related to the deaths of protesters in the 2011 revolt that ended his three-decade rule as president.
But his release would heighten suspicions that his former military-backed regime had returned to power after the armed forces last month ousted the country’s first democratically elected president, Islamist Mohammed Morsi.
The court’s decision Monday, along with the killing a day earlier of 36 detainees apprehended during the recent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, are certain to inflame Morsi sympathizers. They voiced fury over the detainee deaths, accusing authorities of committing a massacre. The government said the detainees had died in an attempted prison break.
For government supporters, meanwhile, a bloody attack Monday on police recruits in the Sinai bolstered the argument that the authorities are fighting terrorism. Unidentified gunmen killed 25 recruits traveling on a bus in the area, where Islamist militants have stepped up attacks since Morsi’s July 3 ouster.
Nearly 1,000 civilians and dozens of members of the security forces have died since Wednesday, when authorities raided two Islamist protest camps in Cairo in what Human Rights Watch on Monday called “the most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history.”
Neither side shows signs of backing down. Al-Jazeera television showed pro-Morsi demonstrators, who are seeking his reinstatement, marching in several areas in defiance of a 7 p.m. national curfew.
The Egyptian government, meanwhile, has been considering banning the Brotherhood. The State Department on Monday cautioned against such a move, saying Egypt needs an inclusive political process to emerge from the crisis.
Early Tuesday, state media reported that the spiritual leader of the Brotherhood, Mohammed Badie, was arrested in an apartment building in the Nasr City section of Cairo.
The private ONTV network showed footage of a man the network said was Badie after his arrest. In the footage, a somber looking Badie in an off-white Arab robe, or “galabiyah,” sits motionless on a sofa as a man in civilian clothes and carrying an assault rifle stands nearby.
Badie, who was thought to have been in hiding, and his powerful deputy, Khairat el-Shater, who is also in custody, go on trial later this month for their alleged role in the killing of eight protesters outside the Brotherhood’s Cairo headquarters in June. His arrest is a serious blow to the group at a time when authorities are cracking down on its leaders and midranking officials, detaining scores of them across the country.
Mubarak’s legal victory on Monday came in a case alleging that he and others misused funds allocated for presidential palaces. He was granted bond pending trial, under laws limiting the length of pretrial detention, court officials said. He had been held since 2011. His sons were ordered kept in custody.
Mubarak is still being detained on another corruption charge, but his attorney said that case would be resolved within 48 hours. “He should be freed by the end of the week,” the attorney, Fareed el-Deeb, told the Reuters news agency.
Since his detention, Mubarak has spent long stretches of time in the hospital, but he was moved back to prison in April after his health improved.
Hassan Abu Taleb, an analyst with Cairo’s al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said that the ruling appeared to be based on technical grounds but that the Brotherhood would “wage a media campaign” to link it to the coup against Morsi.
“People will look at this as the biggest symbol of the former regime walking free. This could change local dynamics, make things more tense for the new government,” he said in an interview.
Morsi and other Brotherhood activists suffered years of repression under Mubarak. On Monday, authorities announced that Morsi, who is being held in a secret location, is under investigation on charges that include taking part in the detention, torture and murder of citizens. The announcement gives authorities the legal basis to detain him for a longer period.
Earlier in the day, opponents of the military-backed interim government said at a news conference that they had asked Egypt’s top prosecutor to form an independent committee to investigate the deaths of the 36 prisoners on Sunday.
Mostafa Azab, the spokesman for a legal committee set up to defend the detainees, said authorities had provided sharply varying accounts of how they died, saying at one point that they had rioted at Abu Zaabal prison north of Cairo but later reporting that assailants in a vehicle had tried to free them. The government has said that the prisoners suffocated when tear gas was used to control an escape.
“The MOI have three contradictory stories, and none of them make sense,” Azab said, referring to the Ministry of the Interior. He reported that some of the bodies bore signs of torture but said the Zeinhom morgue in Cairo refused to release them unless families signed certificates saying that the victims had died of asphyxiation.
The allegations are especially potent because human rights groups have documented the shooting deaths of scores of Egyptians in prisons during and after the uprising against Mubarak in 2011.
On Monday, morgue employees prevented most journalists from entering the downtown facility or speaking to medical officials there. Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper, whose reporter managed to enter the morgue, quoted officials there as saying that at least five of the dead had bullet wounds to the head or chest.
Outside the facility, on a garbage-strewn patio buzzing with flies where a white-shrouded body lay in an open coffin, Sayed Mohammed said he was waiting for a friend who was inside trying to attend to the body of his brother. Mohammed said the dead man was 50-year-old Abdelmoneim Muhammed Mostafa, a doctor who he said had been detained at a checkpoint Wednesday.
“They (officials) said he died of asphyxiation, but his brother saw him and says he was shot,” Mohammed said.
Priyanka Motaparthy, a researcher with Human Rights Watch in Cairo, said the group was studying photos of the corpses taken by their relatives but had not yet determined whether torture had occurred.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. government was “deeply troubled by the suspicious deaths” of the prisoners.
An employee at the Interior Ministry media center said Monday that there were no updates since an earlier report saying that the detainees died during an escape attempt while being transferred to the prison. He said he had no information about the morgue requiring families to sign documents saying the victims had died of asphyxiation. He spoke on the condition of anonymity, as is customary for the center’s employees.
The attack Monday on police recruits in the Sinai was one of the deadliest in decades in the volatile territory that borders Israel.
The Interior Ministry said the recruits were returning from leave to their jobs in the border town of Rafah when the gunmen opened fire. Gruesome photos of the victims posted on the Internet showed them lying in a row along the side of the road, dressed in casual clothes, most of them facing down. Some had their hands bound behind their backs.
The militants are relatively few in number, with little organization or command structure, according to local residents. But since the military removed Morsi, the fighters have carried out dozens of attacks on military and police checkpoints and bases in the Sinai Peninsula, raising fears of a budding insurgency.