— Egypt's prime minister ordered Wednesday that deposed autocrat Hosni Mubarak be placed under house arrest after he's released from prison following more than two years in detention.
The announcement came hours after a court ordered Mubarak be released for the first time since he was first detained in April 2011, a move threatening to further stoke tension in a deeply divided Egypt. Many feared Mubarak's release would amplify Islamist allegations that last month's military coup was a step toward restoring the old regime.
Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi said in a statement that he ordered Mubarak be put under house arrest as part of the emergency measures put in place this month. The decision appeared designed to ease some of the criticism over Mubarak being freed from prison and ensure he appears in court next week for a separate trial.
Prison officials said Mubarak may be released as early as Thursday. It is not clear where Mubarak will be held under house arrest, whether in one of his residences or in a hospital considering his frail health. Since his ouster, Mubarak's supporters have released conflicting details about his health, including that the 85 year old suffered a stroke, a heart attack and at times went into a coma. His critics called these an attempt to gain public sympathy and court leniency.
His wife, Suzanne, has been living in Cairo and keeping a low-profile, occasionally visiting Mubarak and their two sons in prison. But security officials said Mubarak was more likely to be moved to a military hospital because of his ailing health.
The order for Mubarak's release followed an appeal by his lawyers in one of his corruption cases. He is also on trial on charges of complicity in the killing of protesters in the 2011 uprising against him that could put him back behind bars. He faces investigation into at least two other corruption cases as well.
The prospect of Mubarak being freed, even if only temporarily, would feed into the larger crisis bedeviling Egypt: the violent fallout from the July 3 coup that unseated President Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist who became Egypt's first freely elected president following Mubarak's ouster.
Mubarak's release "will cause chaos," said human rights lawyer Nasser Amin. "It will be used by Islamists as proof of the return of the old regime ... and can lead to new alliances between revolutionary groups and political Islam."
El-Beblawi's decision followed an appeal from the youth campaign that spearheaded the petition and protests against Morsi to the interim authorities to use the emergency measures in place earlier this month to keep the former president behind bars.
The group Tamarod blamed Morsi's government for Mubarak's coming release because they said it failed to admit new evidence in the case against the autocrat.
In a statement, Tamarod warned against releasing Mubarak, saying it would be a threat to national security. The group said revolutionary groups "will not stand idle seeing the killers of martyrs get acquitted."
"If it is acquittal for Mubarak today, it will be acquittal for Morsi tomorrow," the group said, vowing to hold a public show trial for Mubarak. "We will not remain silent about freedom for any killer of the Egyptian people."
The three judges who ordered Mubarak be freed met in Tora prison, where he has been held for most of his detention since April 2011. But even before they ruled, human rights advocates have argued for a new system of justice to make up for a shoddy prosecution and a judiciary divided between loyalists of the old regime, Islamists and independents.
Egypt's prosecutor Hesham Barakat told local media that the Wednesday decision was final and his office has no plans to appeal it. A senior prison official, Mostafa Baz, told the private CBC television station that his office will ask the prosecutors on Thursday whether Mubarak is wanted in other cases. If he's not, Baz said the former leader would be freed.
Key Islamist figures detained
Meanwhile, Egyptian authorities have continued their crackdown on Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, arresting the group's supreme leader and other senior figures and sending them to trial.
On Wednesday, cleric Safwat Hegazy, a fiery preacher from the ultraconservative Salafi movement and a top Brotherhood ally, was captured at a checkpoint near the Siwa Oasis in eastern Egypt and close to the border with Libya, according to the state-run MENA news agency. The cleric is wanted on charges of instigating violence.
According to the website of the state-run Al-Ahram daily, Hegazy had shaved off most of his beard, dyed his hair and covered his face with a niqab, a head-to-toe woman's dress that leaves only a slit for the eyes uncovered.
But the head of local security where Hegazy was arrested denied he was disguised as a woman, saying the cleric had dramatically changed his looks, shaving his trademark white beard, dying it black and keeping only a black goatee, and dressing as a local Bedouin. Maj. Gen. Enani Hamouda was speaking to the privately owned Al-Hayat TV.
Egyptian state TV aired a photo showing him sitting next to army soldiers, clean-shaven and dressed in a white robe, without his prescription glasses and flashing a smile.
MENA said Hegazy, who joined ranks with the Muslim Brotherhood in campaigning for Morsi's presidential bid, showed no resistance during his arrest and was flown to a detention centre in Cairo.
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Hegazy was a key speaker at the main pro-Morsi sit-in that was dispersed by security troops last week in Cairo's Nasr City suburb. He told protesters to hold their ground and promised to deal blows to the military. He is wanted on charges of instigating deadly clashes last month with security forces outside a Republican Guard building that killed 54 people, most of them Morsi supporters.
Also, an Egyptian security official said Mourad Ali, a spokesman for the Brotherhood's political party, was detained at Cairo airport while trying to catch a flight to Italy. The official said Ali's name was on the watch list in the airport for his involvement in the latest violence in Egypt. The official didn't elaborate.
All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
On Tuesday authorities detained the Brotherhood's supreme leader and spiritual guide, Mohammed Badie, dealing a serious blow to an embattled movement now struggling to keep up its protest campaign against the military's overthrow of Morsi and subsequent deadly assaults on pro-Morsi sit-ins.
Morsi and his top aides have been held incommunicado at unknown locations since the July 3 military coup. The ouster of Morsi, Egypt's first democratically elected president, came after four days of mass protests in Cairo and elsewhere demanding he step down for abusing his power.
The Brotherhood arrests appear aimed at crippling the group and weakening its ability to continue putting pressure on the government.
Over the past three days, the group's campaign of near-daily protests has petered out, with scattered demonstrations in Cairo and elsewhere attracting mere hundreds, or even dozens, of protesters.
On Tuesday, several hundred Morsi supporters staged protests in Helwan, an industrial suburb south of Cairo, and in Ein Shams, a residential district on the opposite end of the city, shortly before the 11-hour curfew went into effect at 7 p.m. They also held a similar rally in the southern suburb of Maadi.
With files from Reuters