New Impetus for Egypt’s Opposition?

New Impetus for Egypt’s Opposition?

According to Tunisian journalist Slim Boukhdir, the recent release from prison of Ayman Nour, the iconic leader of Egypt”s liberal opposition, can be attributed to the interplay of several factors: US appeals for more democracy in Egypt, the change of leadership in the White House, and pressure from Egyptian civil society

Egypt”s attorney general announced that Ayman Nour had been released from prison for “health reasons”, a version also cited by other official Egyptian sources.

Nour himself welcomed his release as a positive signal, but at the same time emphasized that it was not the result of any kind of deal with the Egyptian regime. He said that he had known nothing of his impending release until the last minute, when he was sitting in a police car on the way from the prison to his apartment in Cairo”s Zamalek district.

That being said, informed observers will find it hard to believe that the release of the Mubarak regime”s most prominent political opponent was really motivated by “health reasons” alone.

Implausible grounds?

It is true that Nour”s health was at times critical during his imprisonment and was made worse by the violation of his basic rights by guards, whom he claims randomly subjected him to poor treatment.

However, if the official reasons for his early release are in fact correct, this begs the question as to why he wasn”t released a year or two ago? After all, continuing imprisonment only caused his health to deteriorate further, as he himself repeatedly pointed out.

Other observers, by contrast, find it difficult to regard the release solely as a response to longstanding US demands for his release. After all, Nour, the best-known member of Egypt”s secular opposition, continues to play an important role in national politics as the opposition”s champion.

US appeals to the Egyptian government to release the chairman and founder of the liberal “Ghad” party have by no means diminished in recent years; even the Bush administration viewed Nour”s arrest as a demonstration of the Egyptian government”s deliberate neglect of its obligations to democracy, freedom and the rule of law.

The regime”s puzzling motives

Although Nour”s ongoing imprisonment during the Bush era led to a marked cooling off of relations between the USA and Egypt, the Egyptian regime persisted in keeping the political leader behind bars – isolated not only from his family, but also from his political power base, without any possibility of actively participating in his country”s politics.

Moreover, some people are wondering what caused the Egyptians to make this concession to the Americans – if indeed it is one – after so many years, and just five months before the end of Nour”s prison term, as he himself remarked.

The spokesman for the US State Department, Gordon Duguid, underlined that although his government had “not been informed of this step in advance”, it welcomed the news.

J. Scott Carpenter, deputy assistant secretary of state under Bush and today director of the “Fikra” project in Washington, does not attribute any credibility to the “health reasons” line; Nour”s health problems were already known at the time he was imprisoned.

Carpenter instead believes that there must have been other, more important reasons for the Egyptian government”s decision, namely America”s now much more vehement demands.

Carpenter is referring here to an article in the 16 February issue of the Washington Post, i.e. two days before Nour”s release, that can be read as blunt criticism of the Egyptian government shortly before Mubarak”s upcoming state visit to Washington in April.

The article”s author challenged Obama to make it perfectly clear to Egypt that Washington would no longer tolerate the repression of Egyptian opposition members.

The article also called on Egypt to release Ayman Nour and to drop the charges made against civil rights activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim. Carpenter is obviously convinced that the newspaper obtained reliable first-hand information to back up its story.

Nour as key to the White House

It is clear, therefore, that several factors were instrumental in bringing about Nour”s release; in the end, it was unavoidable. On the one hand, the prominent opposition leader only had a few months of his prison sentence left to serve, so that the Egyptian government did not stand to gain anything by leaving him behind bars; and on the other, Nour”s health really was deteriorating.

It was the call for more democracy – the case of Ayman Nour being a key issue in this regard – that almost caused an open rupture in relations between Washington and Cairo. And so it seems that the Egyptian president had a change of heart and decided to eliminate all possible obstacles between himself and the White House in order to put Egyptian-American relations on a new footing at the start of the Obama era.

So the Egyptian government let Nour go; gave him the green light, so to speak, in order to get the green light from the USA in return. In addition, the release was an attempt to create a vent for the anger at Nour”s arrest that had built up not only in Egyptian society but also in numerous international human rights organizations.

The question as to whether the charges leading to the imprisonment of the chairman of the “Ghad” Party were valid in the first place – i.e. the question as to whether his conviction may have been associated with what in a third-world country could be viewed as the audacious, even suicidal, boldness of daring to run against the incumbent president – would certainly be worth a separate analysis.

Apart from that, however, most people agree that the political stage in Egypt lost much of its sparkle after Nour”s forced “withdrawal”, and that it is now regaining one of its greatest stars with his release. We can, therefore, look forward to seeing some interesting new twists in the country”s politics in the future.

Hope of a breath of fresh air for Egyptian politics

Before his incarceration, Nour had stirred up the country”s political scene with his ability to inspire the masses.

When he entered the race as presidential candidate, he ended the bipolar division of the country”s political arena into two large, hostile blocks – namely with the regime on one side and the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood on the other – thereby creating the possibility of a new, unconventional and multipolar political system.

Together with the liberal protest movement “Kifaya”, Ayman Nour caused a huge stir. A third block made up of secular liberals seemed to be emerging; a block that distinguished itself not only from the ruling elite with its demands for immediate political reforms, but also from moderate political Islamists due to its liberal cultural understanding of legal issues and the relationship of church and state.

Against this backdrop, Nour”s announcement, fresh out of prison, that he intends to relaunch his political activities and his commitment to democratic reforms, gives reason for hope that he will once again make major waves on Egypt”s political scene.

This hope is heightened by the fact his imprisonment has only reinforced his status as a symbol of the movement for democracy in Egypt and the entire Arab world.

This development can only be beneficial for Egypt”s political landscape, and the new wind that Nour”s return is expected to bring is sure to have a positive effect on demands for reform – not only in Egypt, but throughout the region.

* Slim Boukhdir is a Tunisian author, journalist and human rights activist.

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor