Egypt frees Mubarak as crackdown on Islamists continues

CAIRO — As supporters cheered former President Hosni Mubarak's release from prison, Egypt's military-backed government pressed ahead with its crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, taking steps to ban religious movements from forming political parties and weaken the influence of Islamic law on the constitution.

The release of Mubarak on Thursday suggested that remnants of the police state he built during his 30 years in power were resurfacing two years after the autocrat was ousted in the "Arab Spring" uprising. Since then, the former leader has been in and out of the nation's consciousness.

A small crowd of supporters watched as the helicopter carrying the 85-year-old Mubarak took off from Tora Prison into a clear sky. He was flown a few miles to a military hospital along the Nile in southern Cairo, arriving on a gurney. Traffic on the corniche was stopped as Mubarak, wearing white shoes and his trademark sunglasses, was wheeled from the landing pad and through the hospital's gates.

The government has said the man who was Egypt's longest-serving modern leader will be placed under house arrest. Mubarak, who had been in custody since shortly after his overthrow, was in effect freed on bail. He still is on trial on murder-related charges in the deaths of more than 800 protesters.

"At least Mubarak is out in the open and we no longer have to pretend," said Ahmad Abdelqader, one of those who demonstrated against him two years ago in Cairo's Tahrir Square. "There are decades of corruption and robbing the country and destroying our health and our youth. I will go out to protest. I cannot stand by after all we've been through."

But much of Egyptian society is indifferent to Mubarak's legal drama, focusing instead on pressing economic problems and the country's deep political divisions. Liberals are increasingly certain that their revolution against Mubarak has been stolen. The Brotherhood has seen hundreds of its supporters killed and its leadership imprisoned in recent days. Neither appears able to stop the military from reasserting control.

Authorities arrested another Brotherhood official, spokesman Ahmed Arif, on Thursday. Brotherhood leaders including supreme guide Mohamed Badie and Khairat Shater, its chief strategist and financier, are expected to stand trial Sunday for inciting murder. The group has called for rallies to protest Mubarak's release and the coup last month that ousted Islamist President Mohamed Morsi.

The latest moves to revise last year's Islamist-drafted constitution are reminiscent of tactics used by Mubarak to isolate the Brotherhood and ultraconservative Islamist parties. Proposed constitutional amendments would prevent strict interpretations of Islamic law from guiding constitutional rights, and forbid religion-based parties, likely to include the Brotherhood and possibly the ultraconservative Salafist Nour Party.

Some Islamist movements had "stressed that their platform did not mix religion and politics," Ali Awad, head of the committee that wrote the revised amendments, said in a television interview. "Yet after some time you clearly see how these Islamist parties exploited religion to attract supporters and to stigmatize their secular rivals as 'infidels.'"

The new amendments have angered Islamists, notably the Nour Party. Nour had pressed the 2012 constitutional assembly controlled by the Brotherhood to deeply ground the national charter in Islamic law. Fearing a backlash from secularists, the Brotherhood toned down Nour's proposals. But the final document, which was rushed and boycotted by liberals, did include Islamic provisions.

Nour spokesman Sherif Taha criticized attempts to scale back Islamic influence as a sign that the army and the government were moving "against the Islamic identity of Egypt, the thing which nobody wants."

"The case of Egypt's Islamic identity is not the cause of a certain party, but it is the cause of the Egyptian people and there is no disagreement regarding it," he added.

The constitution has been the focal point for secularists and Islamists, prompting debates over national identity, religious tolerance and civil rights. Many Egyptians feared that with the Brotherhood's rise to power last year, Islamists would be freer to impose their views. The interim government, composed mainly of liberals and technocrats, appointed a committee to streamline the document.

"The constitution Islamists drafted was a constitution for Islamists," said Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor at Cairo University. "It was not professionally written.... Articles were plugged in at the last minute and not even discussed by the panel. It was just in tatters."

The proposed amendments, said Nafaa, call for eliminating the Shura Council, or upper house of parliament, which historically has been more of an advisory chamber. The new provisions would give the more important lower house expanded powers that are "closer to a parliamentary than a presidential system."

The suggested legal changes would also strike down an article added last year by Islamists to prevent members of Mubarak's former ruling National Democratic Party from running for office. Brotherhood followers and activists who protested against Mubarak's police state are concerned that without that caveat, the old guard might return to power.

Nafaa said the article was unnecessary. Egyptian law states that anyone indicted for a criminal offense cannot run for office.

"Those who have spoiled political life, those who have robbed the country's riches, or committed great violations of human rights, they will be isolated from political life not with a political decision but with a judicial sentence," he said.

The proposed constitutional changes will be reviewed by a 50-member committee and put to a referendum. The plan is part of the interim government's "political road map," which calls for a new constitution and parliamentary elections by early next year to be followed by a presidential vote.

Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.

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