Freed Egyptian dissident says he'll return to politics

Ayman Nour: "A lot of things have been put on hold over the past years... I am ready to make a change in this country."

Nour 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Nour 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
One day after his unexpected release from prison, leading Egyptian dissident Ayman Nour announced that he would not return to lead the opposition Al-Ghad (Tomorrow) Party in Egypt. "I shall not be the head of the party. There is another chief of the party right now," Nour told a news conference on Thursday, according to Reuters. Nour, who was jailed after challenging Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the 2005 elections, said that he would continue his political activity as a member of the party. He told reporters that he would be responsible for overseeing the membership committee, and added that "our main battle now is to rebuild the party." Nour's imprisonment had been a source of contention between the United States and Egypt in recent years. He was convicted on December 24, 2005, for forging signatures on petitions to register the party in 2004. While only 50 signatures were required, he submitted around 2,000. Nour, today 44, and his supporters say his arrest was meant to remove him from politics. He was released due to medical reasons, according to the Egyptian prosecutor's office. He had complained of eye and heart problems, and his wife Gamila had petitioned Egyptian courts for his release on health grounds. Nour, who headed the Al-Ghad party during the 2005 elections, finished a distant second in balloting criticized as flawed and in which most voters stayed away. Nour told The Associated Press from his Cairo home on Wednesday that he learned he was going to be freed only when a car arrived at the prison to take him home. "Why they did this is unknown," he said. "I am coming out with an open heart and am ready to work, and nothing has changed. A lot of things have been put on hold over the past years... I am ready to make a change in this country." He later told reporters gathered at his home: "I will definitely resume my political activity." His release came after years of pressure from the United States and many see the timing of the sudden move, at least in part, as a gesture to new US President Barack Obama. "America, from the beginning, was against arresting Ayman Nour. President Bush thought that it was an anti-democratic act," said Zvi Mazel, former Israeli ambassador to Egypt and a research fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. "By releasing him, they can show Obama that Egypt is nice and not so harsh against the opposition," he said. In addition, Mubarak would like to begin his relationship with Obama in a positive atmosphere, he said. Nour's imprisonment came as the administration of then-president George W. Bush was pressing for democratic reforms in the Middle East. Bush specifically named Nour among several dissidents from other countries - including Cuba and Myanmar - during a speech in June 2007 in the Czech Republic that lauded democracy's progress around the globe. "There are many other dissidents who could not join us because they are being unjustly imprisoned or held under house arrest. I look forward to the day when conferences like this one include... Ayman Nour of Egypt," Bush said at the time. Other say that in addition to his deteriorating health, it was likely a way for Egypt to signal to the United States and other countries that it does things on its own terms - and not because of pressure, which had eased in recent months. "There was a tremendous pressure to have him released by many Western powers, and even Arab countries," said Moheb Zaki, senior adviser at the Cairo-based Ibn Khaldoun Center for Development Studies. "No country likes to show that it has submitted to pressure. So what happened, I think, is that after the thing quieted down, they released him." But experts also note that the power of his party had seriously diminished while Nour was in prison, and is considered to no longer pose a threat to the regime. "It was a party that gained prominence at a certain moment. It was going to be a powerful liberal party but it has split into two now," Zaki said. "This is one of the consequences of the imprisonment of Ayman Nour. The party split and it is [now] a weak party." Nour's lawyer, Amir Salem, told the AP there had been no deal between Nour and the government for him to avoid politics in return for his release. "He told me he will reorganize the party, resume his activities and return to politics," said Salem. Egyptian political analyst Diaa Rashwan said he was skeptical of claims that no deal had been struck with the government to keep Nour out of politics, or at least tone down his opposition. "I cannot believe they would release him to leave him to do whatever he wants. I can't imagine his release would be without some sort of arrangement or agreement, perhaps related to the succession issue... perhaps that he won't run for president," Rashwan said. Many believe that the 80-year-old Mubarak, who has been president for more than 28 years, plans to install his son Gamal as Egypt's next president - an idea opposed by government critics.