In his sunglasses and with his unfeasibly black hair, the 86-year-old Hosni Mubarak looked like nothing so much as a Mafia boss or perhaps a James Bond villain at the moment when an Egyptian judge dropped murder charges against him. The evidence against the former dictator was held to be flimsy.
Although obviously not in the best of health, Mubarak was alert enough to make an apparently surprise appearance on television a few hours later denying he’d done anything wrong. He does, though, remain incarcerated for embezzlement. Only one ruler of Egypt, the charismatic Gamal Nasser, has died peacefully in office in their own bed since the Second World War; Mubarak may not enjoy that end, but his personal prospects look much rosier than when he was ousted in 2011.
Those for the country he commanded are far less good. Few doubt that the judgment reflects badly on the independence of the courts, and their willingness to incur the displeasure of Mubarak’s spiritual successor, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. If the evidence against Mubarak was thin, that employed against three Al Jazeera journalists earlier this year was orders-of-magnitude thinner – and they remain in jail. The courts quite clearly sway to the tune of Mr Sisi.
Under the Muslim Brotherhood and latterly Mr Sisi, civil society, free media and human rights have not fared well in Egypt. The nation remains unstable and uncertain of its future, symbolised in the confusion over what precisely should be done with Mubarak.
One thing that seems to be bottom of the agenda for the whole of the political elite, if not the Egyptian people, is economic reform: this, after all, is a nation where the army owns and runs factories. Free markets and enterprise are stymied by corruption and petty regulation; the state mismanages vast tracts of industry and the upshot is that, like many Arab societies, young Egyptians find no way of making a living.
The revolution of 2011 was supposed to change all that and more. With Mubarak acquitted, it is fair to say that such hopes have now been all but extinguished.