Tens of thousands of people converged on Cairo’s Tahrir Square Saturday night, not to celebrate the life sentence handed to deposed President Hosni Mubarak earlier in the day, but to try to resurrect a revolution that has suffered two major setbacks in a week – a presidential election in which no revolutionary candidate made it into the runoff and now a verdict that many feared would be overturned on appeal.
It was one of the largest crowds in Tahrir since Mubarak’s ouster 15 months ago, with protesters expressing shock that the judge had found Mubarak and his interior minister, Habib al Adly, guilty in the deaths of demonstrators in the uprising that led to Mubarak’s ouster, but had acquitted their deputies, including the heads of the security forces responsible for the killings.
Many saw it as a verdict that protected the system that Mubarak had set in place.
“These guys are known evil symbols of the regime. Nobody thought they would walk,” said Omar Salama, 24, a technology shop owner as he stood with friends in Tahrir.
The Mubarak verdict came as Egyptians were still trying to come to terms with the results of their country’s first democratic election May 23 and 24 that led to two polarizing finalists -- including Mubarak’s last prime minister -- in a runoff later this month. Both the election, whose results were announced Monday, and the verdict were signals, the Tahrir crowd said, that each seemingly major milestone toward reform is clouded by split decisions and uncertainty. Rather than a revolution, so far, only the head of the state has changed, they said.
“For a long time, we felt the revolution was in trouble,” said Mohammed Abdel Karim, 32, one of the nearly 200 lawyers for the victims, who was in the courtroom when the verdict was read and later was in Tahrir Square. “As soon as I walked out of the courtroom, I told the police outside securing the building that there will be another revolution.”
By 10 p.m. the square was filled in a scene that recalled the heady days of the uprising that began on Jan. 25, 2011, and culminated with Mubarak’s ouster 18 days later. Once warring political groups merged into one as their partisans marched toward the square. The police and army were nowhere to be seen.
In his ruling earlier in the day, Judge Ahmed Refaat, head of the northern Cairo criminal court and a Mubarak appointee, had said that the prosecution never proved that Mubarak or al Adly had ordered the killings that took place between Jan. 25 and Jan. 31, 2011. But, he said, that because they were responsible for the security of the state, they were complicit for not stopping the killings.
As Refaat began handing down his ruling at the Cairo Police Academy on the outskirts of the capital, many believed he was about to hand a heavy sentence to Mubarak and his co-defendants. In almost Shakespearean Arabic, he described the uprising that ended Mubarak’s rule as a new dawn. Dozens of victim’s lawyers cheered as he began to speak.
But the courtroom fell silent as it became clear that the men Egyptians feel personally carried out the kill orders -- Ahmed Ramzy, former head of the Central Security Forces, Adly Fayed, former director of General Security, and Ismail al Shaer, former director of security for Cairo – were being set free.
In a span of minutes, Egyptians experienced a wave of emotions that went from joy to rage, and the calls to move to Tahrir began.
“I thought I would be happy, and I was, but when I heard that everyone else was cleared, I realized this was just a plot,” to give the appearance of a government serving justice, said Soha Sayed, 43, who was carrying a poster of her husband, Osama, who was killed Jan. 28, 2011. “The regime is still in power. They can walk free today.”
Mubarak’s attorneys vowed to appeal, and both sides agreed the judge had given them ample grounds with his assertion that he had seen no evidence that they ordered the killings. Unlike American courts, Egyptian judges have broad powers to determine guilt or innocence and lay down verdicts.
“It’s a political verdict,” Amir Salem, a top attorney for the victims, said angrily as he left the courtroom. The verdict was designed “to save the regime.”
Because of the security officers standing around the cage, no one could see Mubarak’s reaction inside the courtroom. As the verdict was read, state television panned to his sons, Gamal and Alaa, who also were acquitted in the case but still face unrelated corruption charges.
But the French news agency AFP reported that Mubarak was in tears as he refused to leave the helicopter transporting him to Tora prison compound in southern Cairo, where he was expected to serve his sentence. State television later reported that the former president suffered a heart attack shortly after the verdicts were read though it offered no more information about his health as the crowds grew in Tahrir.
In explaining the acquittals, Refaat said the prosecution never presented any evidence.
“The case files did not include any orders or evidence proving to the court that the acquitted defendants committed such crime,” he said.
Mubarak and al Adly were charged with killing and injuring protesters. Mubarak was also charged with offering bribes for business deals in Sharm el Sheikh, the Egyptian resort where he lived briefly after he was forced from office, but the judge dismissed those charges, saying the statute of limitations had expired.
Almost immediately, the verdict was denounced by Egypt’s many political factions. Arab nationalist Hamdeen Sabahi and moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who finished third and fourth, respectively, in the first round of the presidential balloting, issued calls for their followers to mass in Tahrir Square.
Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate who finished first in the voting, issued a statement calling for a new trial, saying the prosecution had not been given enough evidence to carry out its responsibilities.
Only Ahmed Shafik, whom Mubarak appointed prime minister on Jan. 29, 2011, as the killings were taking place and who came in second in the presidential balloting, declared support for the verdict, saying in a statement that it showed that no man was above the law and that the revolution had triumphed.
Hours later in Tahrir, chants denouncing Shafik and his candidacy in the runoff were as frequent as those denouncing Mubarak and the judge.
Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondent Amina Ismail contributed to this report.