CAIRO // An Egyptian court yesterday accepted an appeal by the lawyers of Hosni Mubarak, overturning the former president's life sentence for his role in the killing of hundreds of protesters during the early days of the 2011 uprising against his regime.
Coming less than two weeks before the two-year anniversary of the January 25 protests that led to Mubarak's resignation, the decision by the Court of Cassation to retry Mubarak and several other officials and security personnel was likely to stir up emotions and raise the stakes for president Mohammed Morsi's political allies as the country prepares for new parliamentary elections in April.
Judge Ali Abdel-Rahman did not release the reasons for accepting the appeal yesterday. A new judicial panel is expected to be established in the coming weeks and the trial is likely to wend its way through the first half of the year.
Mubarak, 84, called Egypt's "last pharaoh", was the only deposed leader from the Arab Spring uprisings who was investigated, tried and sentenced in his own country. Muammar Qaddafi of Libya met his end in Sirte, beaten and shot to death by rebels. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunis to Saudi Arabia before protesters breached the palace walls. Ali Abdullah Saleh, of Yemen, struck a deal with opposition groups guaranteeing immunity. And Bashar Al Assad is still holding on to power as a civil war rages in Syria.
The case contains two sets of charges: allegations of corruption related to Mubarak, his sons Alaa and Gamal and business tycoon Hussein Salem; and complicity in the killing of protesters by Mubarak, former minister of interior Habib El Adly and six other security officials.
In June, all the defendants were acquitted of corruption charges because the statute of limitations on the accusations had elapsed. Mubarak and El Adly were sentenced to life in prison for their role in the death of protesters, but the other security officials were acquitted.
Calling life under Mubarak's autocratic regime "black, black, black" years, Judge Ahmed Refaat said in the sentencing session that he found Mubarak guilty because he failed to prevent the killings – and not because evidence had emerged of specific orders from the former president. That detail led many commentators and legal experts at the time to expect the acceptance of Mubarak's appeal.
Yehya Al Gamal, a constitutional law scholar who was Egypt's deputy prime minister in the first months after Mubarak's resignation, said the court's decision to retry the defendants "means the judiciary is still solid and still fair".
Mr Morsi campaigned for the presidency on a platform of "protecting the revolution", winning narrowly against Mubarak's last prime minister Ahmed Shafiq last June just weeks after Mubarak was sentenced. Since taking office, Mr Morsi has called for new trials of members of the old regime and issued a law in November that paved the way for reinvestigating crimes allegedly committed during the uprising. He has frequently warned of conspiracies by members of the old regime to disrupt Egypt's democratic transition.
But it was unclear yesterday if he or his supporters considered the retrial a victory. One possible outcome of the new proceedings is that Mubarak is acquitted of all charges, a recipe for turmoil on Egypt's streets.
Mahmoud Ghozlan, the Muslim Brotherhood's spokesman, said that the group "respects the decisions of the courts".
Last week, the public prosecutor announced new charges against Mubarak related to allegedly receiving illegal gifts worth some six million Egyptian pounds from Al Ahram newspaper during his time in office.
Those new charges ensured that Mubarak would remain in prison. Without new charges, he could have been released yesterday, lawyers said. Alaa and Gamal, Mubarak's sons, were held in prison through a similar tactic by the public prosecutor over the summer. Just days before they were acquitted, they were charged with insider trading and financial crimes.
Mubarak's lawyers called the court's decision a victory for impartial justice.
"The previous judge was not correct in his application of law and he did not let us speak freely," said Yousry Abdel Razek, a member of Mubarak's legal team. "This is why the appeal was accepted."
Mr Abdel Razek vowed to introduce new evidence in the retrial, showing the involvement of the Muslim Brotherhood – where Mr Morsi was a long-time top official before becoming president – and other Islamist groups in the killing of protesters.
Prosecutors were also expected to submit new evidence in the case. Their report includes testimony from Habib Al Adly, the former minister of interior, describing how Mubarak watched live footage of events in Tahrir Square, according to reports in Egyptian newspapers. If true, the prosecution could submit that information as evidence that Mubarak was fully aware of the violence unleashed by security forces. His lawyers said during the first trial that he was unaware of the quickly unfolding events around Egypt.
How the new trial of Mubarak and the other defendants will proceed is still hazy because of changing legal developments over the past two months.
Mr Morsi issued a new law for the "protection of the revolution" that ordered the reopening of investigations and prosecutions in the cases of murder, attempted murder and wounding of protesters during the 2011 uprising. The law also created a special prosecutor panel for "protection of the revolution".