Egypt is still coming to terms with the surprise release of former opposition leader Ayman Nour. Nour was released from a Cairo prison on Wednesday after Egypt’s attorney general announced late on Wednesday that nine prisoners, including Nour, had been released for “medical reasons.” The government rationale was challenged by Nour's appearance as he emerged from prison in what seemed like rude good health. He had served three years of a five year jail term on politically motivated trumped up forgery charges.
According to The Arabist, American media pressure is responsible for Nour’s release. It came just two days after the Washington Post said the new administration should not deal with Hosni Mubarak unless Nour was freed. The Arabist says the release signals a new intent in US-Egypt relations. Eight softly-softly years of the Bush administration had failed to effect any lasting change in the Egyptian polity and perhaps Obama’s new hardline stance might work.
Obama has been aware of Nour since August when he wrote a letter to the then-presidential candidate. Nour told Obama his real charge was that he was a competitor to Mubarak in the 2007 presidential elections. He said he threatened Mubarak’s dream to bequeath the presidency to his son. At the time of the election Nour was the leader of the Hizb el-Ghad party. In December 2005, he was imprisoned for five years on forgery charges. At the time, the Bush administration claimed it was 'deeply troubled' by his conviction but did little to seek his release.
Nour, a 44-year-old lawyer, was the main challenger to Hosni Mubarak in Egypt's first multi-party presidential elections in 2005. Officially he only took seven percent of the vote but no external monitors were allowed to check the results. Despite winning easily, Mubarak was not happy with Egypt’s brief experiment with democracy. He conjured up a charge that Nour faked signatures on petitions he had filed to create his party. Hundreds of riot police cordoned off the courthouse entrance as Nour was sentenced to five years’ hard labour.
According to the terms of his release, Nour is prohibited from seeking public office barring a presidential pardon. In a press conference yesterday he said would not resume his post as Ghad party leader but instead promised to rebuild it in a new role. Speaking at the party headquarters in Cairo (which was still a shell after being suspiciously burnt down in November), he said he would be responsible for organisational work inside the party. But few doubt he is preparing for another tilt at the presidency.
Nour faces a Herculean task to overcome the institutional bias in favour of the president who has ruled Egypt for almost three decades. Hosni Mubarak was sworn in on 14 October 1981, eight days after Islamist militants assassinated Anwar Sadat at a military parade in Cairo. Despite a low domestic and international profile, Mubarak consolidated power thanks to a period of domestic stability and prosperity. He has also kept the country under emergency law for his entire period in office which has proved convenient for keeping dissent to a minimum. But as he turns 80 this year, attention is focussing on his son Gamal who is being groomed to take over. Nour’s release may affect Gamal more than his father Hosni. “I am against bequeathing the presidency,” Nour warned yesterday. “I was against it before and I will remain against it.”