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Egypt court orders release of former ruler Mubarak as crisis deepens

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Former hard-line Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was ordered released from prison Wednesday by a Cairo court and could be free within days, a symbol of how the unfolding crisis in the country seems to have erased the promise for democratic gains promised by the Arab Spring.

Mubarak could be released from Cairo's Tora prison by Sunday, if not earlier, but he won't be fully free. Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi said in a statement that he ordered that Mubarak be placed under house arrest. He will also remain on a list prohibiting him from leaving the country, and his assets are still frozen, a judicial source at the general prosecutor's office said.

Still, the fates of the pharaohs have turned over quickly in Egypt, with Mubarak ready to walk out of prison — while his democratically elected replacement, Mohamed Morsi, sits in an undisclosed military location.

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The country’s general prosecutor said Wednesday that he will not appeal the Cairo court’s decision, meaning Mubarak will follow the basic release procedures and will be free within a maximum of 48 hours. A lawyer for Mubarak said that he could leave prison as early as Thursday after paperwork is filed.

The authoritarian ex-ruler still faces other court cases, including a retrial on charges of complicity in the killing of protesters amid the 2011 uprisings, but he has already served the maximum pretrial prison time allowed in the case, Reuters reported.

Some on the streets of Cairo on Wednesday said Mubarak’s release would do little to quell unrest in the country.

“Of course it will be unfair, after all that happened, to see someone in authority going free,” said Morad Girgis, a 33-year-old pharmacist, standing on the streets of the upscale neighborhood of Zamalek. “We know he was corrupt and lead to the protests. Even if he was involved in killing protestors, he was charged, so then should be punished.”

Others, like 28-year-old unemployed woman Nadia Saad, said the country was better off under Mubarak’s rule.

“I’m happy he will get out,” Saad said. “He was a good man. In his last speech, he said there would be chaos, and there was. In his time, it was secure and we could eat. Not like now.”

“It’s good and bad,” said Maged Gamal, 26, a lawyer. “What is good is that in Mubarak’s era there was security. But what was bad was that there was thuggery in the Army and police.”

He is the second deposed ruler of Egypt to be behind bars, along with the Brotherhood’s Morsi, who was democratically elected in 2012 following the collapse of Mubarak’s regime, only to be ousted by the military on July 3.

The 85-year-old Mubarak may have no political future, but his release could rile already strained emotions and raise questions about whether the popular uprising that ended his 30-year rule has only given way, after a fleeting interregnum, to a new form of jackboot government.

The spinning door at the top has helped exacerbate deep existing divisions in Egyptian society. Morsi’s removal sparked street protests and violence, leading to the formation of sit-in camps by Islamist supporters, which were later cleared by security forces backed with bulldozers. Violent clashes in the aftermath of the camp clearings have led to the deaths of more than 800 civilians and 100 police officers and soldiers.

Although weakened by the death or arrest of some of its key leaders, the Muslim Brotherhood has vowed to bring down the army-backed interim government and has branded the ouster of Morsi amid widespread popular protests a “coup.”

Authorities arrested the group’s leader Mohamed Badie on Tuesday, but the group immediately appointed 69-year-old doctor Mahmoud Ezzat, who has been described as the Brotherhood’s “iron man,” as a temporary replacement.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel called for an end to the violence on Monday, reiterating an earlier call from President Obama.

“As President Obama said last week, the violence must end,” Hagel said, adding that the United States cannot single-handedly shape the country’s political future. “Our ability to influence the outcome in Egypt is limited.”

NBC News’ Alastair Jamieson and Reuters contributed to this report.

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