CAIRO - In a sign of confidence by a tough Egyptian government, Hosni Mubarak's two sons were freed Monday after almost four years in prison, following a weekend marked by a spate of protester killings by an increasingly heavy-handed police force.
Criticism is mounting over the shooting death of a young mother, which was captured on video and has sparked unflattering comparisons between President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and Mubarak, the authoritarian ruler ousted by a popular uprising in 2011.
Activists warned that the death of 32-year-old Shaimaa el-Sabbagh during a peaceful protest on the eve of the fourth anniversary of the uprising could serve as a rallying symbol, just as the 2010 beating death of a young businessman by police in the Mediterranean port of Alexandria is credited with inspiring the anti-Mubarak revolution in January 2011. Demonstrations to protest police brutality in the wake of the killing were called for later in the week.
"On the revolution's fourth anniversary, authorities release Gamal and Alaa, the sons of the most corrupt, and kill Shaimaa el-Sabbagh, the pure daughter of the revolution," rights activist Zizo Fahmy wrote on his Twitter account.
The Mubarak brothers — wealthy businessman Alaa and Mubarak's one-time heir apparent Gamal — are viewed by many Egyptians as key pillars of an autocratic and corrupt administration that struck an alliance with mega-wealthy businessmen at the expense of the nation's poor and disadvantaged. Although father and son denied any succession manoeuvrings, that perception, along with corruption, police brutality and poverty, were among the main engines of the 2011 uprising.
Their release has fueled the view among activists behind the uprising that the Mubarak regime has been making a comeback since el-Sissi, a general-turned-politician, took office in June.
"There is no fight anymore because the revolution has been completely floored. It has hit the ground," said Wael Eskandar, an activist and blogger. "There is no room for dissent."
Security officials said the Mubarak sons walked free from Torah Prison in a southern Cairo suburb shortly after daybreak and headed to their homes in the capital's upscale Heliopolis suburb. Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim, who is in charge of police and prisons, confirmed their release.
He would not say exactly when they were freed, fueling speculation that the two may actually have been secretly released over the weekend.
The 86-year-old Mubarak remains confined to a military hospital overlooking the Nile, although there are no longer any legal reasons for detaining the ailing former leader.
The Mubarak brothers, along with their father, still face a retrial on corruption charges. Separately, the two sons also face trial on insider trading charges. They had been acquitted of other charges.
Mubarak stepped down in February 2011 and was arrested along with his sons two months later.
The sons' release had been expected since a Cairo court on Thursday ordered them freed on bail. They were sentenced to four years in prison on charges of using state funds to renovate family residences. Their father got three years in the same case, but all three sentences were overturned earlier this month.
Mubarak was sentenced to life in prison in 2012 for failing to prevent the killing of some 900 protesters during the 18-day uprising against his rule. That verdict also was overturned on appeal. He was retried but the case was dismissed last month on a technicality.
Freedom for the Mubarak brothers followed a day of deadly clashes Sunday between anti-government protesters and police on the fourth anniversary of the 18-day revolution that toppled Mubarak's 29-year regime. At least 23 people were killed and 97 injured.
However, the violence was overshadowed by outrage over el-Sabbagh's death in Cairo a day earlier.
She was shot while standing with about 30 fellow members of a leftist political party carrying wreaths they intended to place in Tahrir Square, birthplace of the revolt, in memory of the hundreds killed there. Activists claim the police shot her.
Footage of the killing shows el-Sabbagh carrying a placard as two masked, black-clad policemen point their rifles in her direction. Gunshots ring out after someone shouts the command "fire" and the next frame shows el-Sabbagh lying on the ground. She is then seen being helped by another protester, her head and shoulders bloodied. Later she is shown with blood dripping from her mouth as she is carried by a male protester desperately searching for a car to take her to the hospital. She was pronounced dead on arrival.
Witnesses said several protesters who tried to help el-Sabbah were arrested.
The images, widely distributed on social networks, were a grim reminder of police brutality under both Mubarak and el-Sissi, whose government has shown zero tolerance for street protests, imprisoning dozens of activists for failing to abide by a law adopted in 2013 that bans all demonstrations without permit.
El-Sabbagh's death has re-energized a debate over whether el-Sissi has fallen back on Mubarak-era tactics allowing police to act with impunity against protesters. It has also called into question his commitment to democratic values and his willingness to reform the notorious police.
El-Sissi says his priorities are fixing the economy and battling an Islamist insurgency. He has resisted growing calls for reform, while his government has killed hundreds and detained thousands of supporters of the Islamist Mohammed Morsi, the elected president he ousted in July 2013.
Popular outrage over El-Sabbagh's killing has even brought criticism from some el-Sissi allies.
In an unusually critical column published Monday, the chairman of Egypt's state-run Al-Ahram newspaper, Ahmed Sayed el-Naggar, blamed what he called overzealous police for the killing and said the responsibility for protecting the public lay with el-Sissi.
"The rights of Shaimaa rest on our shoulders, especially on those of the elected president (el-Sissi), who is in charge of protecting the lives of the children of this nation, at least from the abuse of authority," he wrote. He also warned that such abuses are alienating youth groups as well as el-Sissi's own supporters, bringing "the state closer to the policies that people revolted against in the first place."
El-Naggar accused authorities of applying the law banning inauthorized street protests selectively, allowing unlicensed pro-government demonstrations to go ahead while cracking down on government opponents.
Referring to el-Sabagh's killing, analyst Abdullah el-Sinnawi, who is known to be close to the powerful military wrote: "Everything is now at stake. There can either be rule of law or not; respect for the right to live or not; that the police force aligns itself with constitutional principles or everything spirals out of control and terrorism proliferates."