CAIRO — A Cairo appeals court overturned Hosni Mubarak’s life sentence on Sunday and ordered a retrial of the former Egyptian president for failing to prevent the killing of hundreds of protesters during the 2011 uprising that toppled his regime.
The ruling put the spotlight back on the highly divisive issue of justice for the former leader and his top security officers in a country has been more focused on the political and economic turmoil that has engulfed the country for the past two years.
Mubarak, who is being held in a military hospital, will not walk free with Sunday’s court decision. He will remain in custody while under investigation in an unrelated case.
The 84-year-old ex-president was reported last year to have been close to death, but his current state of health is unknown.
A small crowd of Mubarak loyalists in the courtroom erupted with applause and cheers after the ruling was read out. Holding aloft portraits of the former president, they broke into chants of “Long live justice.”
Another jubilant crowd later gathered outside the Nile-side Cairo hospital where Mubarak is being held passed out candies to pedestrians and motorists.
The relatively small crowds paled in comparison to the immediate reaction to his conviction and sentencing in June, when thousands took to the streets, some in celebration and others in anger that he escaped the death penalty.
Sunday’s muted reaction could indicate that the fate of Egypt’s ruler of nearly three decades may have in some ways been reduced to a political footnote in a country sagging under the weight of a crippling economic crisis and anxious about its future direction.
The court did not provide the reasoning for its ruling, but it is expected to do so later. No date has been set for the retrial.
The ruling in favor of the appeal, however, had been widely expected.
When Mubarak was convicted and handed a life sentence in June, the presiding judge criticized the prosecution’s case. He said prosecutors lacked concrete evidence and that nothing that they presented to the court proved that the protesters were killed by the police.
Mubarak’s defense lawyers had argued that the former president did not know of the killings or realize the extent of the street protests.
An Egyptian fact-finding mission recently determined that he watched the uprising against him unfold through a live TV feed at his palace.
The mission’s report could hold both political opportunities and dangers for Mubarak’s successor, President Mohammed Morsi of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood.
In a retrial, the prosecution has the right to present new evidence, such as that reportedly unearthed by the fact-finding mission, which could lead the court to convict Mubarak of ordering the crackdown.
If convicted, Mubarak could face a life sentence or have it reduced. Under Egyptian law, a defendant cannot face a harsher sentence in a retrial, meaning the former leader cannot face the death penalty.
A new trial for Mubarak could further unsettle the nation at a perilous time.
Egypt is grappling with an ailing economy. The Egyptian pound’s value is slipping against the U.S. dollar. Foreign reserves are shrinking, and tourism is in a deep slump. Politically, the country is deeply divided by the bitter rivalry between its Islamist rulers and their allies and an opposition led by liberals and secularists.
Clashes between the two sides left at least 10 people killed and hundreds wounded last month.
The judge also ordered a retrial of Mubarak’s former security chief, Habib el-Adly, convicted and sentenced to life in prison on the same charges.