CAIRO — A court on Monday ordered the release of former President Hosni Mubarak, and for the first time it was conceivable he might go free — a measure of how far the tumult now shaking Egypt has rolled back the sweeping changes and soaring hopes that followed his exit two and a half years ago.
Few legal analysts thought a release was likely, at least in the coming weeks. But under the government installed last month by Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, they say, it is no longer a foregone conclusion that prosecutors will continue to find reasons to detain the former autocrat, who was arrested after the uprising against his rule in 2011.
Some analysts said that even the possibility of Mr. Mubarak’s release, previously unthinkable, provided another sign of the return of his authoritarian style of government.
Since the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi, the interim government has brought back not only prominent faces of the Mubarak era but signature elements of that autocratic state, including an “emergency law” removing the right to a trial and curbs on police abuse, the appointment of generals as governors across the provinces and moves to outlaw the Muslim Brotherhood again as a terrorist threat.
The Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, Mohamed Badie, was arrested early Tuesday. A private television network that supports General Sisi broadcast footage of Mr. Badie in custody.
The police scarcely bothered to offer a credible explanation for the deaths of three dozen Morsi supporters in custody over the weekend. After repeatedly shifting stories, they ultimately said the detainees had suffocated from tear gas during a failed escape attempt. But photographs taken at the morgue on Monday showed that at least two had been badly burned from the shoulders up and that others bore evidence of torture.
Security officers have a new bounce in their step. They are again pulling men from their cars at checkpoints for interrogation because they have beards, or dealing out arbitrary beatings with a sense of impunity — Mubarak-era hallmarks that had receded in recent years. Among civilians, even those outside the Muslim Brotherhood, fear of the police is growing.
Badr Abdelatty, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, denied any resemblance between the new government and Mr. Mubarak’s. “The emergency law is just for one month and for one objective: fighting terrorism,” he said, using the term that the new government applies to both civil disobedience and acts of violence by Islamist opponents of the military takeover. “The only way to fight terrorism is to apply the rule of law, and some emergency measures for just one month, to bring back law and order.”
More than 1,000 Brotherhood members and other supporters of Mr. Morsi have died since Wednesday in a police crackdown, and his ouster has set off a wave of retaliatory violence from his supporters, mainly targeting churches around the country and security forces in the relatively lawless northern Sinai. In the latest episode there, militants killed 25 police officers and wounded 3 others on Monday in an attack on their minibuses. Officials said the bodies were face down with bound hands, evidently assassinated.
Egyptian state and private television networks, all pro-government now, broadcast images of the bodies’ return to Cairo, sometimes under a heading about Egypt’s fight against terrorism. The Muslim Brotherhood, which has denounced those killings, held protests and marches by thousands of its supporters in Cairo and across the country, as it has every day for the six weeks since Mr. Morsi’s ouster.
Some analysts said Monday that the new government was arguably more authoritarian than Mr. Mubarak’s. “The Mubarak state was actually less repressive than what we are seeing now,” said Shadi Hamid, research director for the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. “In terms of sheer number of people killed, what we are seeing is unprecedented for Egypt.”
But where Mr. Mubarak’s supporters were diffident or self-serving, Mr. Hamid said, General Sisi “has the fervent backing of millions of ordinary Egyptians, many of whom think the army has not been sufficiently brutal against the Muslim Brotherhood.”
“That is what makes this new authoritarian order much more resilient and harder to dislodge,” he said.
One human rights advocate said the symbolism of Mr. Mubarak’s release might help. “For someone like me, it would be greatly helpful,” said Hossam Bahgat, founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and one of only a few advocates who have questioned General Sisi’s declaration that he was advancing the 2011 revolution by removing the elected president.
“It is better to end the theatrics and have some clarity,” Mr. Bahgat argued, if only to convince former revolutionaries of the danger that the authoritarianism of “the Mubarak state” may be re-emerging in a different guise.
Judges have dismissed many charges originally brought against Mr. Mubarak, including directing the killing of protesters. But the previous post-Mubarak governments always made clear that they would keep finding new allegations to keep the former leader behind bars. The council of generals that succeeded Mr. Mubarak was too desperate to placate the public and preserve its own legitimacy to release him, and Mr. Morsi campaigned on promises to keep him locked up.
But the Sisi government has no such insecurity about its power, or hostility to Mr. Mubarak. Some members of political factions that had previously joined rallies for Mr. Mubarak’s incarceration, or even execution, said they believed the public did not care so much anymore.
“I don’t think people are paying the slightest attention,” said Hussein Gohar, a spokesman for the Social Democratic Party. “And if it happens, it will not have anything close to the impact it would have had a year ago,” he said of Mr. Mubarak’s release, in part “because people have moved on” and in part “because of the paradigm shift to support for the army.”
Besides, Mr. Gohar said, he did not think the new military-backed authorities would allow massive protests against Mr. Mubarak, once an Air Force general. “At the end of the day, Mubarak is part of the military,” Mr. Gohar said. “He is one of them.”
The interim government bears other resemblances to the Mubarak government. General Sisi, the defense minister, was Mr. Mubarak’s head of military intelligence. The figurehead president, Adli Mansour, a judge, was appointed to a top court under Mr. Mubarak. The interior minister was a high-ranking official under Mr. Mubarak. The foreign minister is a senior ambassador who served in Washington. The finance minister is an economist who worked closely with Mr. Mubarak’s son and designated successor, Gamal, who became a senior figure in the old ruling party. And the justice minister is another judge appointed to a top court under Mr. Mubarak.
But many pointed to crucial differences between now and the Mubarak era.
Mr. Gohar of the Social Democrats said the revolution had inculcated a new demand for participation and accountability that would prevent a return to the old order. “There is still a deep state, of course, but you cannot go back,” he said, adding that continued pro-Morsi protests demonstrated Egyptians’ new assertiveness. “People are not going to be passive anymore and just accept what is handed to them by the government.”
Mr. Bahgat argued that General Sisi’s government might rely on the same people, institutions and tactics that Mr. Mubarak did, but said it was a new authoritarianism, not a restoration. This time, he said, there is a much greater emphasis on “the propaganda machine,” suggesting that attention to public opinion may be the main legacy of the 2011 revolt.
Many analysts say that whatever its inclinations, the government is unlikely to risk even a small public backlash at this volatile moment by releasing Mr. Mubarak. If it does not, his continued incarceration opens the intriguing possibility that he and Mr. Morsi, now detained at an unknown location, might end up in jail together. Mr. Morsi is no stranger to jail: he was there as a political prisoner just before Mr. Mubarak’s ouster