Egypt’s 2011 jailbreaks still a mystery, carry potential embarrassment for Islamist leader

CAIRO — It was one of the most perplexing events of Egypt’s revolution: orchestrated attacks on prisons around the country that broke out more than 20,000 inmates while police were tied down with the massive popular protests that swept autocrat Hosni Mubarak from power.

The prison breaks added to the chaos during the 18-day uprising in 2011, and the flood of criminals onto the streets fueled a crime wave that continues to this day. Also among those who escaped were around 40 members of the Palestinian militant group Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, as well as more than 30 leaders of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood — including the man who is now president, Mohammed Morsi.

There has never been a definitive accounting of who was behind the prison attacks.

But now the question has become a political headache for Morsi. A judge — from a judiciary branch where opposition to the Islamist president is strong — has turned an ongoing court case into the first public investigation of the jail breaks, calling in prison officials to testify on what happened.

A string of top police, prison and intelligence officials have put the blame on Hamas, a close ally of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, saying the militant group sent fighters from Gaza to join with Bedouin from Sinai to storm prisons and break free the jailed Hamas members.

In Egypt’s polarized political climate, Morsi’s opponents are using the issue against him, saying friends of the Brotherhood violated the country’s security and fed its instability. The eagerness of some in the intelligence and security agencies to blame Hamas could in part reflect resentment of the Brotherhood’s ties with the militant group, which they have long seen as a threat.

Hamas vehemently denies any role in the attacks — and so far, the court case, currently being heard in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia, has produced no proof of its involvement.

Saad el-Husseini, who was among the Brotherhood leaders freed in the break and who is now a provincial governor, said the accusations against Hamas were “an attempt to slander” Morsi. He denied there were attacks on the prisons, telling reporters this month it was the police who opened the jails amid the confusion of the uprising.

Morsi and the other Brotherhood figures were detained in a sweep against the group just after the wave of protests against Mubarak began on Jan. 25, 2011. They were held in the Wadi el-Natroun prison complex north of Cairo without charge under emergency laws and escaped about two days after their detention.

Some critics argue that Morsi is a fugitive in the eyes of the law since he did not turn himself in after his escape, a crime punishable by up to two years in prison.

With the Ismailia trial now making front-page headlines in Egypt’s newspapers, the interior minister, who is in charge of prisons and police, sought to deflect charges that Morsi broke the law by escaping. Mohammed Ibrahim, who was appointed by Morsi, told a May 11 news conference that Morsi’s name was never officially entered as a detainee, suggesting he therefore could not be considered a fugitive.

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