CAIRO // Egypt's prosecutors yesterday ordered that Hosni Mubarak and his two sons be detained for 15 days, kicking off their investigation of the former first family in dramatic style after facing criticism for taking their time.
Gamal and Alaa Mubarak were set to spend last night at Tora prison outside Cairo, limited to the amenities of any inmate, according to Mena, the official state news agency, while media reports said the former president was being questioned in a hospital in Sharm el Sheikh.
The order to detain the three men for interrogation, announced by the prosecutor general on Facebook yesterday, was certain to mollify many protesters demanding a quicker investigation of the former president and his sons, even as it raised the prospect of a politically divisive trial.
Tens of thousands of protesters held a rally last Friday in Cairo's Tahrir Square demanding that prosecutors investigate and bring charges against the Mubarak family for allegedly engaging in corruption and directing violence against protesters in late January and early February.
"The prosecutor general ordered the detention of the following people: Hosni Mubarak, the former president, and his sons Alaa and Gamal Mubarak, for 15 days," a spokesman for the prosecutor general said in the statement, without specifying the focus of the interrogation.
The statement added that a team of physicians assembled by prosecutors would be sent to Mr Mubarak's bedside at his hospital "to clarify his medical condition".
In a second statement posted on Facebook later yesterday, the prosecutor said a team of lawyers was questioning Mr Mubarak at the hospital in the presence of his lawyer.
The 82-year-old former president was admitted to hospital on Tuesday for an unspecified heart condition.
In the year before he resigned on February 11, Mr Mubarak was dogged by questions about his health.
He travelled to Germany for gall bladder surgery in March last year, and has reportedly suffered from severe back pain.
The detention announcement came a day after Essam Sharaf, the prime minister, suggested an investigation of the former president would go forward. "No one is above the law," he told MENA.
Mr Mubarak denied allegations of corruption in a recording broadcast on Al Arabiya on Sunday, saying he and his family were facing "unjust campaigns against us and false allegations that aim to smear my reputation".
The former president said he would co-operate fully with prosecutors, but threatened legal action against his accusers.
In deciding whether to allow the trial to move forward, Egypt's military rulers had been weighing the benefit of a trial against the risk of alienating elements of the military and the Egyptian population who worried that the country's political transformation was going too far, said Shadi Hamid, an expert on Egyptian politics at the Saban Centre for Middle East Policy at Brookings.
"For the protesters it's very clear cut, it's an issue of justice," he said.
"Transitions are difficult, and you don't want to alienate former supporters of the old regime and remnants of the old regime, and there are still many of those in Egypt today."
Even as the focus remained on Mr Mubarak, it was his sons who experienced the full implications of the detention yesterday.
The two men were "in a state of shock" as they arrived in the morning at Tora prison, and were given standard white prison uniforms and blankets, MENA reported. The two refused to take any breakfast, the news agency added.
Under Egyptian law, prosecutors can jail a suspect for 15 days for questioning. The term can be renewed an indefinite number of times by a judge.
Tora prison, which gained notoriety in the past two decades as the government's preferred detention centre for radical Islamists and terrorism suspects, now houses a number of Mr Mubarak's former ministers.
Habib el Adly, the former interior minister, has been held at the prison since February 17 as he defends himself against charges of money laundering and a separate indictment alleging he directed the murder of protesters.
Ahmed Nazif, the former prime minister, and Safwat Sherif, the former head of Mr Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP), were both detained for interrogation and brought to the prison this week.
Others in residence include Ahmed Ezz, the country's billionaire steel tycoon and former NDP official, Ahmed al Maghraby, the former minister of housing and Zakariah Azmy, Mr Mubarak's former chief of staff.
All three men are facing corruption charges.