CAIRO // Egypt’s president Mohammed Morsi responded to criticism over the acquittal of 24 men accused of organising protests that led to the infamous “Camel Battle” during last year’s uprising against Hosni Mubarak by sacking the public prosecutor, state media reported.
The state broadcaster said that Mr Morsi issued a presidential “decree appointing prosecutor general Abdel Meguid Mahmoud as Egypt’s envoy to the Vatican”.
Mr Mahmoud was considered to be a remnant of the Mubarak regime and he was sacked by Mr Morsi a day after he acquitted 24 people who allegedly organised counter protests in February last year in support of the then president.
Those protests resulted in clashes across Cairo in which some of the men rode into downtown Cairo on camels and horses. At least 11 people died and 2,000 were injured.
Several political groups and parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and a host of liberal groups, had called for protests in Tahrir Square today against the decision by the court to acquit the men of charges of manslaughter and attempted murder. After Mr Mahmoud’s sacking last night, it was unclear if the demontration would go ahead.
“All officials accused in that case escaped justice due to the weakness of the evidence and statements submitted by the public prosecutor,” the Freedom and Justice party said yesterday.
The acquittals had added pressure on Mr Morsi to order new investigations into corruption and state-sponsored violence committed by the Mubarak regime.
Mubarak himself and his minister of the interior were sentenced to life in prison in June for failing to prevent bloodshed during the uprising, but he and his two sons were acquitted of corruption charges.
Although the former president’s sentence was severe, the verdict led to renewed protests in June against the public prosecution, which could not prove that the Mubarak family had perpetrated greater crimes.
That few officials have been found guilty of ordering the killing of an estimated 850 protesters during the uprising has been a sore point – first with the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and now for Mr Morsi.
The president has ordered a panel to review criminal cases with the option of retrying some of the accused, but there has been no update on those efforts so far.
“This raises many questions about the public prosecutor,” said Amir Marghany, managing partner of Marghany Advocates in Cairo.
“Why did the prosecutor sign off on the case if he didn’t have the evidence to back it up?”
The Camel Battle was a crucial turning point in the uprising. The night before, on February 1, Mubarak gave a speech that his advisers thought might have been heartfelt enough to turn the tide and allow him to stay in power until new elections later in the year.
He promised to step down and asked for peace to be restored so the country could begin a transition plan.
“Hosni Mubarak who speaks to you today is proud of the long years he spent in the service of Egypt and its people,” he said in a late night broadcast.
“This dear nation is my country, it is the country of all Egyptians.”
But in a case of gross hubris, several government officials organised demonstrations the following day in support of the Mubarak regime, according to an account by Abdel Latif El Menawy, the then head of news at the state-run TV and radio stations.
Mr El Menawy recounted in his book Tahrir: The Last 18 Days of Mubarak that Anas El Fekky, Mubarak’s minister of information, told him on the morning of February 2 that “today is our day”.
Some of the pro-Mubarak protesters – the ones riding on camels and horses – headed straight for Tahrir Square, where they immediately clashed with pro-democracy demonstrators occupying the square.
Public sentiment shifted swiftly back in favour of the anti-Mubarak protesters and the regime was never again able to regain its credibility. Mubarak resigned nine days later.
Ali El Dean Hilal Dessouki, a former top NDP official and political science professor, said in July that the events that day were one of the “mysteries of the revolution”, suggesting that a group of renegade officials sought to torpedo the president’s momentary victory.
Among the accused in the Camel Battle case were senior officials in the Mubarak regime, including most prominently Safwat El Sherif, the longtime secretary-general of the NDP, and Fathi Sorour, who was speaker of parliament from 1990 to 2011. Both men are already in jail over other cases.
Judge Mustafa Abdullah said the acquittals were based on a paucity of evidence against the 24 men. What testimony was presented was “driven by grudges between witnesses and the defendants due to partisan differences”, said the Associated Press.
Some of the evidence was given by people with a criminal record, which the judge said tainted their credibility.
The spotlight has returned to Mr Mahmoud, the head of the public prosecution, with political parties and advisers to the president publicly accusing him of incompetence.
A rare holdover from the Mubarak regime, he has fought criticism since the uprising for failing to properly investigate crimes against members of the old regime.
“Until old regime security apparatus is purged, law and order will remain elusive and justice will continue to be denied,” said Mohamed Baradei, the Nobel laureate who was a contender for the presidency before bowing out in January, on his Twitter account on Wednesday night.