The Strange, Unending Limbo of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak

In many ways, life is not so bad for Egypt’s deposed ruler, Hosni Mubarak. At the Cairo hospital he calls home, he enjoys regular deliveries of flowers, newspapers and takeout restaurant meals; visits from his wife, two sons and grandchildren; and a sweeping view over the Nile.

To mark his 88th birthday recently, a throng of well-wishers gathered at the hospital gates and sang, danced and waved his portrait. Mr. Mubarak pulled open a window and waved back.

However, the one luxury Mr. Mubarak has not been afforded is the right to simply walk out of the hospital — which is something of a conundrum. In May 2015, a judge decreed that Mr. Mubarak had completed his three-year prison sentence for corruption, in the only successful prosecution of the onetime strongman since his turbulent ouster in 2011.

Technically, he was a free man.

Yet Mr. Mubarak remains confined to the hospital room that has doubled as a jail cell for the past three years, with a guard posted outside his door. His legal limbo continues even as many of his former allies, men who grew fabulously rich during his three decades of rule, are quietly cutting deals with the government to overturn their own convictions.

Mr. Mubarak’s longtime lawyer, Farid el-Deeb, declined interview requests. But several of Mr. Mubarak’s friends, including those who visit him in the hospital, explain the situation as a delicate deal between him and Egypt’s powerful military.

They say the military has been generally lenient toward Mubarak-era figures since President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took power in 2013, but wants to avoid the likely outcry that would accompany Mr. Mubarak’s release. So the two sides have reached a compromise: Mr. Mubarak agrees to stay in the hospital for now, and the government agrees that his two sons, Alaa, a businessman, and Gamal, once seen as his political heir, will remain free. Both were released from jail last year.

“His weak point is his two sons,” said Yousri Abdelraziq, a volunteer lawyer for Mr. Mubarak. “And whenever he speaks in public, the authorities get upset.”

Mr. Abdelraziq said he had received Mr. Mubarak’s permission before speaking to a journalist and produced a cellphone picture of himself standing beside the former president, looking grumpy inside his hospital room.

Security and his medical treatment are other factors in Mr. Mubarak’s hospital stay, friends say. A military spokesman declined to comment on the possibility of an arrangement with Mr. Mubarak.

Mr. Mubarak’s legal limbo is a reflection of the curious place he occupies in Egyptian public life, five years after the heady protests that ended his long rule. Many Egyptians still despise him as the totemic symbol of the rampant cronyism and repression that plagued Egypt for decades. His incarceration is one of the last remaining victories for the leaders of the 2011 protests, many of whom are now languishing in Mr. Sisi’s jails.

But others have started to look back on Mr. Mubarak’s rule with a twinge of bitter nostalgia, as a time of relative freedom compared with the harsh authoritarianism of Mr. Sisi’s rule.

“Of course Mubarak was corrupt, but he knew how to take good advice,” said Osama Diab, an anticorruption researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a prominent rights group in Cairo. “Now it’s a disaster. Mubarak was a competent dictator; Sisi is not.”

As hard feelings toward Mr. Mubarak seem to be receding, so do his legal woes.

The humiliations of 2012 and 2013, when he was forced to sit in a courtroom cage, are largely over. He avoided prosecution on the most serious charges, like the deaths of protesters in 2011, and he now faces a retrial in one final case. There is little prospect of it coming to court anytime soon, lawyers say.

Instead, Mr. Mubarak is whiling away his days at the Maadi Military Hospital, a towering complex overlooking the Nile. Staff members there say he lives under a permissive yet firm regimen. Security is tight, and all visitors are vetted by the Ministry of Defense, a security official said. He chats on his cellphone (he has an old Nokia model without Internet access) and occasionally receives a barber who dyes his hair. Nurses sometimes see him shuffling the halls as part of therapy for a fractured pelvis he suffered in a fall in the bathroom in 2013.

Mr. Mubarak frequently receives flowers from admirers, and visits from his wife, Suzanne, his sons and his grandchildren, and a tight circle of ardent admirers. They say his mood veers from high spirits to embittered grumbling, describing a man who is scornful of the allies who abandoned him, dismissive of the young protesters who pushed him out, and largely unrepentant for his 29 years in power.

“He feels betrayed,” said Hassan Ghandour, a former Republican Guard who befriended Mr. Mubarak. “When he sees critics on TV who used to suck up to him, it leaves him very irritated.”
Maadi Military Hospital has been the stage for other late-life political dramas. In 1980, the shah of Iran died there, on the floor below Mr. Mubarak, having fled to Egypt from revolutionary Iran. The next year, Egypt’s own ruler, Anwar el-Sadat, was rushed to the hospital after being shot by Islamist officers at a military parade. He died hours later, paving the way for Mr. Mubarak to take over.

Mr. Mubarak is very conscious of his own legacy, said Mr. Abdelraziq, the lawyer, and was “very upset” to be convicted of corruption. He gently nudged his way back into the spotlight last year, giving a rare if unrevealing 15-minute phone interview to a television talk show. Shortly afterward, security at his room was tightened.

Since Mr. Sisi took power in 2013, the government and courts have shown great leniency toward the powerful figures of Mr. Mubarak’s era — business tycoons, ministers and cronies, now exonerated or released from jail — underscoring the sharp limits of change in Egypt since 2011.

In the latest case, on May 4, an appeals court overturned a five-year sentence for corruption against Ahmed Nazif, who served as prime minister under Mr. Mubarak from 2004 to 2011. Others are seeking to buy their freedom with cash payments.

A lawyer for Hussein Salem, a billionaire businessman and Mubarak confidant who fled to Spain in 2011, has agreed to transfer 75 percent of his wealth — 5.5 billion Egyptian pounds, or about $626 million at the official exchange rate — in exchange for the overturning of two convictions, carrying sentences of seven and 15 years.

“The deal is done from our part,” said the lawyer, Mahmoud Kebaish. “Now we are waiting for the government.”

Adel el-Saeed of the Illicit Gains Authority, which handles such deals, said it had received more than 30 settlement requests from businessmen and former officials linked to Mr. Mubarak.

Another Illicit Gains Authority official said Mr. Mubarak, too, was hoping to cut a deal, offering about $10 million in return for the quashing of his corruption conviction. That bid is unlikely to succeed soon, and few believe Mr. Mubarak will be heading to his villa in Sharm el Sheikh anytime soon. But short of a full release, he may have an eye on shaping his legacy and overturning his conviction so the state will restore his military honors and ensure a state funeral.

“What matters now about Mubarak is how he goes down in history,” said Mr. Diab, the researcher. “When he dies, the fight will be over whether he was a thief or a military hero, whether he was responsible for the current chaos in Egypt, or whether he saved the country from it until he was kicked out.”