It was 18 days that shook the Middle East.
The autocrat who had ruled Egypt for nearly three decades was gone, ousted by a popular uprising that was part of the larger upheaval in the Middle East known as the Arab Spring.
So it appeared at the time. But six years later, it now seems like a political mirage.
With the March 24 release of disgraced former dictator Hosni Mubarak from prison, it’s clear those heady days are just a memory. Egypt, now under the control of another military officer, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has come full circle.
The top Egyptian appeals court acquitted Mubarak of involvement in the killing of protesters during the 2011 revolt in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. At least 900 people were killed during the uprising.
The 88-year-old Mubarak, a former air force commander who became the country’s president when Islamists assassinated President Anwar Sadat in October 1981, was arrested in April 2011 and initially received a prison sentence of 25 years.
Mubarak was also sentenced to three years in prison in May 2015 after being convicted at a retrial of embezzling millions of dollars earmarked for the renovation of presidential palaces.
His sons, Alaa and Gamal, and a number of his top officials, were also charged and jailed in 2011.
The rising political profile and economic influence of his sons had led many to believe Mubarak was grooming them to take power after his death, and even raised concerns among his allies in the military.
The trial stunned Egyptians, many of whom doubted until the last minute that their autocratic leader would be brought to justice. The sight of Mubarak being rolled into the defendant’s cage to be tried for his crimes was a powerful symbol of what the uprising represented for Egyptians. Never before had an Arab leader been held accountable in such a visible way.
Yet even when the revolution was at its height, protesters had to contend with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which was determined to use its powers to protect its extensive economic and political privileges.
The Mubarak trial was one of the concessions made by the SCAF in order to retain a semblance of legitimacy, as well as its need to pacify the masses during a tumultuous time.
Hassan Nafaa, a professor of political science at Cairo University, told the Al-Monitor news site that Mubarak’s men later effectively hijacked the revolution, taking advantage of the chaos that ensued following the election of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi to the presidency in June 2012.
When Morsi was overthrown by a military coup a year later, the way was paved for Egypt’s “deep state” to return to power, under el-Sisi. He was the army’s director of military intelligence, a position that was virtually invisible to the public. Even when he ran for president, in the spring of 2014, he had no real platform.
Following Morsi’s removal, more than 1,400 people were killed and tens of thousands detained. Since then, the other members of Mubarak’s regime put on trial in 2011 have also been set free. His two sons were released in 2015.
Unlike Mubarak, Morsi remains in prison on numerous charges, and Egyptian courts have handed down hundreds of death sentences in cases connected to political violence, most involving Muslim Brotherhood members.
Critics claim that the country’s judiciary, which enjoyed some degree of autonomy under Mubarak, is today being used to crush dissent.
Mahienour el Massry, an activist and lawyer who served 15 months in prison under Sisi’s rule, accused his regime of “the same corruption, the same brutality.
“Mubarak might be released, but in the eyes of those who believe in the revolution he will always be a criminal killer and the godfather of corruption,” she told the London-based Guardian newspaper. “This might be another round that we have lost, but we will keep on fighting to change the inhuman regime that releases criminals and imprisons innocent people.”
Timothy Kaldas, a fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, based in Washington, told Al Jazeera that Mubarak “being in or out of prison doesn’t change the fact that the military that took control in Egypt in 1952 continues to rule Egypt today.”
Without real parties, real political institutions, and real professional politicians, there are few ways for young Egyptians to get involved in politics, other than protesting in the streets. They lack organizational structures.
So many Egyptians, worried about worsening economic conditions, have reacted to the release with resignation. “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” as the saying goes — I’m sure it’s been translated into Arabic.
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.