Sunday, February 22, 2009

Egypt Frees Challenger To Mubarak

The Egyptian authorities release Ayman Nour, an opposition politician whose jailing more than three years ago on forgery charges has been the source of tensions between Cairo and Washington.

A young secular politician who mounted an unprecedented challenge against Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's long-serving president during elections in 2005, Nour was jailed on charges that his supporters say were trumped up. Nour himself said that he was being punished for having dared to challenge the president who has ruled since 1981, but the authorities were adamant that he had forged documents to obtain legal status for his Al Ghad party.

In initial remarks after his release, Nour insisted that he would go back to practising his "role as a politician through the Ghad party". It is not clear, however, if that will be possible. He was freed on health grounds and his original five-year sentence bars him from politics for years after release.

"I think the timing of his release is important", said Hesham Kassem, the former deputy leader of Al Ghad under Nour. "They waited until [George W.] Bush was gone and they did it before [Barack] Obama's team had the opportunity to broach the subject. It is not a sign that there will be more political reform in Egypt but it removes a cornerstone of problems with Washington".

Bush administration officials, including Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of state, raised Nour's case repeatedly with their Egyptian counterparts but they were steadfastly rebuffed, with Cairo insisting that it rejected all interference in a domestic matter. Some analysts at the time of Nour's jailing argued that in spite of coming a distant second in the election with about 8 per cent of the vote, the authorities perceived him as a threat because he could try to garner US support by casting himself as a credible alternative to Gamal Mubarak, the president's son who many believe is being groomed to succeed him.

Egypt's first contested presidential election was held at a time when Washington was heralding a campaign to bring democracy to the Middle East and regional governments came under pressure to enact reforms. Washington welcomed the release of the opposition politician. Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, who held talks with Egypt's FM in Washington last week, is due to visit Cairo early next month for an international donor conference on measures to rebuild Gaza after Israel's invasion.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

What Ayman Nour Told Me

Hope to bring you a post-prison interview with freed Egyptian opposition leader Ayman Nour soon, but here's a look at what he told me on the eve of the 2005 presidential election. His brief statements to journalists this week indicate that he is no less determined to struggle for democracy in Egypt than he was when he ran against Hosni Mubarak--or before serving the past three plus years in jail for, most people believe, standing up against the regime. [I spoke with Nour in his apartment three days before the election, but the Q&A seems to be irretrievable from the archives.]

TIME: In your last speech in Cairo's Tahrir Square, you attacked Mubarak and said what you wanted to say. Is that a sign of a fair election?

NOUR: This has nothing to do with the elections. This has to do with the fact that I have personally overcome the fear of this regime. People are afraid of injustice, of oppression, of the police, of a ruler who can do anything. The indications don't suggest that this will be a fair election. The media is not neutral, the press works for the president 24 hours a day. There were attempts to tarnish [my] reputation. There is no international supervision. But we are attempting to liberate our will, to ensure that there are elections, to ensure there is change. If there are indeed true elections, then I imagine that Hosni Mubarak would get 20-30 percent of the vote.

TIME: Does the election nonetheless represent some positive change?

NOUR: Yes, it is a step. But we cannot be content with that. We want a peaceful sharing of power, not just a shape without content. [Under the monarchy] until 1952, there was a sharing of power. There was a normal process where governments came and went.

TIME: Is Mubarak capable of reforming Egypt from within the regime?

NOUR: It is normal that he will announce some changes and achieve some of them. Even if he makes changes, it will not be true as far as the people are concerned. There will always be loopholes and ways of getting around democracy, and at the end it will not lead to the desired effects.

TIME: Why did you run for president?

NOUR: I don't believe in boycotts, which is an act of apathy.

TIME: Assuming Mubarak is declared the winner, what is your next step?

NOUR: It depends on how he wins. If he wins democratically and with transparency, we will congratulate him. If he wins by fraud, then we will start a new battle in facing an illegitimate regime, from protests to civil disobedience.

TIME: Like what happened recently in the Ukraine where the presidential election was disputed?

NOUR: I am not Ukrainian. I am Egyptian. What is the problem with the Ukrainian example? In my opinion, it was some people trying to change their county. I do not see that they have a committed a crime. The regime is in a mess because there is real anger in society now and this anger will not be diffused unless this regime goes. Without my having to lead demonstrations, these demonstrations will go on.

TIME: Why would Egyptians vote for you?

NOUR: My program expresses the desires of the Egyptian people. There is a link between me and the people.

TIME: Ordinary Egyptians really support you, a liberal?

NOUR: Most Egyptians are in the middle closer to the liberals than to leftists or Islamists.

TIME: What do you expect with your upcoming trial?

NOUR: It has no basis. [Mubarak] is a weird stubborn man and he can do anything. My experience in prison was very important to me, one of injustice, of torture. There is something called torture in the Egyptian jails and something called legal violence. There are many, many people who are innocent. There are some who have been in jail for 15 years without a case against them or trial. My top priority now is to release political prisoners. Before I went to prison, it was constitutional reform.

TIME: Were you tortured?

NOUR: There was violence and there is evidence of the violence. [Nour rolls up his trousers to show bruises on his shins.]

TIME: Are the changes taking place in Egypt irreversible?

NOUR: Egypt's only chance for progress and stability is through real democratic change. It is hard to stop everything, but it is also difficult to continue everything. This is a party, a regime and some individuals that are not prepared for democratic thought

TIME: What explains the changes we are seeing in Egypt and the Arab world?

NOUR: The Arab world is not an island. Democracy is no longer a choice as much as it has become a direction that the whole world is taking. It is not possible that the whole world moves toward democracy and the Arab world moves in the opposite direction. America has an important role in everything that takes place in the Arab world. So when it comes to democracy, why would it not have an important role?

TIME: Did the overthrow of Saddam Hussein help Arab democrats?

NOUR: The American presence in Iraq has greatly harmed Egyptian calls for reform because the Egyptian citizen is saying that we do not want to turn into Iraq. This puts us in an awkward situation when we talk about reform. Saddam Hussein was a dictator, but what exists today is something worse than Saddam. Saddam was an oppressor and a dictator, but there are other dictators that America does not confront. The feelings of the Arabs is that what took place in Iraq has nothing to do with democracy at all.

TIME: But has it turned out that Saddam's fall helped democracy in the region?

NOUR: No doubt that the totalitarian regimes that exist in the Arab world are affected by external pressure more so than local public opinion. There is also no doubt that the declaration of the Greater Middle East Initiative put some kind of pressure on these despotic regimes. This is useful in the process of democracy.

--By Scott MacLeod/Cairo

Friday, February 20, 2009

Egypt Frees a Dissident: A Gesture for Obama? By Scott MacLeod / Cairo

Former Egyptian opposition leader Ayman Nour, right, greets supporters as he arrivesl at his party's headquarters, in Cairo, Egypt, Nouri was unexpectedly released from prison on Wednesday after serving more than three years.
Amr Nabil / AP


Ayman Nour was released from prison on Wednesday, but not even his wife knew that he was coming home. Egyptian authorities jailed the opposition leader in 2006 on charges of electoral fraud, but his imprisonment was widely seen as an effort to silence President Hosni Mubarak's most outspoken critic. Nour's wife Gamila Ismail, who organized "Free Ayman Nour" protests, often despaired that her husband, who suffers from diabetes and other ailments, would remain in prison until the end of his five-year sentence in Cairo's notorious Tora prison. And so, when Nour finally arrived at his apartment as a free man, he didn't have keys and nobody answered the door.

Egypt's attorney general cited "medical reasons" for Nour's release even though Egyptian courts had repeatedly denied Nour's request for a pardon on those grounds. Many see politics behind the decision. Mubarak, 80, wants to improve relations with the new Obama administration, following eight years of cold relations with the Bush administration that were frosty in part due to Nour's imprisonment. "Does Mubarak want to risk another four years of bad relations with the United States? I don't think so," says Hesham Kassem, former deputy leader of Nour's liberal, secular al-Ghad party. "If [Nour's imprisonment] had gone on into the Obama administration, then we were not talking about a Mubarak-Bush problem anymore, but an Egyptian-American problem." (See pictures of people around the world watching Obama's Inauguration.)

Cairo-Washington relations have been chilly over numerous issues, including U.S. handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the American invasion of Iraq as well as disagreements over domestic reform in Egypt. The U.S. froze negotiations on a free trade agreement with Egypt after Nour was handed his prison sentence; Mubarak, in turn, halted his regular visits to Washington. In contrast, Mubarak appears elated by Obama's decision to plunge immediately into Arab-Israeli peacemaking, and gave a warm welcome last month to George Mitchell when the new U.S. special envoy made Cairo the first stop of his first Middle East tour. Last week in Washington, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit, who bitterly sparred with former Secretary of State Condeleezza Rice over Nour, became the first Arab counterpart to meet with Obama's top diplomat, Hillary Clinton.

The freeing of Nour, 44, not even a month after Obama assumed office, is also being seen partly as a final snub of President Bush, whose administration repeatedly and publicly pressured Mubarak to free Nour. "Bush was gone Jan. 20," says Kassem. "They had it out together, and Mubarak had his way. Mubarak came out on top. When is the perfect timing to release Ayman Nour? Within a few weeks of Obama coming in." (See pictures of George W. Bush in the Middle East.)

Yet it's far from certain that Nour's release heralds an easing of the regime's pressure on opponents and critics. Within the last two weeks, for example, Egyptian state security agents reportedly detained and held without charge for four days an Egyptian-German blogger, Philip Rizk, who had protested what he saw as the regime's inadequate support of Paletinians during the recent Gaza conflict with Israel. Human Rights Watch has denounced Egypt's "appalling domestic rights record," citing alleged "torture in police stations, arbitrary arrests of non-violent dissidents and crippling restrictions on civil society organizations." Rights groups have also criticized Egypt's state of emergency, which has remained in force throughout Mubarak's five terms as President.

A better indication of the regime's intentions will be seen in how it deals with Nour following his release. Within hours of tasting freedom, Nour told reporters that he intends to re-enter politics despite the ban imposed on political activity imposed by his conviction. In the 2005 election, Nour was runnerup, winning 7% of the vote to Mubarak's 88%, but government pressure, possibly including fires that damaged al-Ghad's offices, has decimated Nour's party. In its court prosecution of Nour, the government charged that he had forged signatures on documents required for registering al-Ghad to become a political party. Regime critics have speculated that the regime sought to silence Nour because he posed a threat to the prospects of Mubarak's son, Gamal, 45, to become Egypt's next president.

Nour has a long way to go to rebuild his political career. Though he gained respect for defying Mubarak and enduring a prison sentence, few Egyptians see the freed prisoner as a local Nelson Mandela. Many value Mubarak's National Democratic Party for bringing stability, while large numbers of government opponents support the banned Muslim Brotherhood group. Nonetheless, some observers believe that Nour's release may be an indication of greater freedom to come for all opposition parties. "This is a positive sign," says Hala Mustafa, editor of the Egyptian journal Democracy. "In the end, the regime showed a relative tolerance toward one of its fierce opponents. It is a sign that maybe the regime is willing to compromise. Before, the regime [used to shut] the door for any compromise. Political openness is a must, and it is very difficult to turn back."

Thursday, February 19, 2009

FP - Ayman Nour's release - symbol and substance

Foreign Policy Marc Lynch
Thu, 02/19/2009 - 3:28am

Ayman Nour, leader of Egypt's al-Ghad Party, has finally been released from prison after being arrested on what most people consider trumped-up charges following his challenge to Hosni Mubarak in the 2005 presidential election. (Egypt's al-Masry al-Youm has extensive coverage in Arabic here.) Nour's imprisonment was always outrageous. The Washington Post editorial page and many democracy activists framed his detention as the single most potent symbol of Mubarak's refusal of American pressures on democracy issues. As with the persecution of the civil society activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the imprisonment of Nour sent a powerful message to Americans and to Egyptians alike: the U.S. would not seriously press democratic reform issues and could not even protect its friends.

Why now? Most Egyptian coverage ties it directly to Mubarak's desire to improve relations with Washington by removing an ongoing irritant and offering a fresh start with the Obama administration. Comments a savvy Cairo-based friend:

it is not just an overture to Obama that Mubarak wants to change the negative dynamic in the US-Egypt relationship. It is a clear message that says, “look: Bush tried for four years to pressure me. But I do things on my own timing and any pressure is counterproductive.” The message is....that if the same US approach to Egypt continues, it will only generate headaches. It was necessary to release Nour to improve the bilateral relationship, since after the 2006 Democratic takeover of Congress the Ayman Nour case became a congressional issue beyond the control of the administration.... Over the last two years Congress has put unprecedented (even if still relatively mild) pressure on Egypt by withholding $100 million in military aid (but giving Condoleeza Rice the right to waiver the withholding, which she did twice). Now Congress will not have Ayman Nour to rally support around this, and the cautious State and DoD approach to the Egyptian relationship (which is very strong in military, intelligence, and a few issues aside diplomatic terms) could very well prevail - especially as we’re seeing a new Egyptian crackdown on the tunnels to Gaza, the other big issue for Congress.

I fear that he's right about the politics of this. Nour's imprisonment was an important symbolic issue in the U.S.-Egyptian relationship. But his detention was never the only or even the most significant aspect of the regime's crackdown on political opposition, which included the arrest of thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members, heavy pressures on the press and the judiciary, and much more. His release responds to the symbolic issue, but not to the substantive issue. I'm very happy for Nour and his family, and for the end of the farcical case against him. His release does not come close to reversing the authoritarian trends in Egypt I hope that this does not become an excuse to begin ignoring democratic reform, human rights and public freedoms issues in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world.

Freed Egyptian dissident surprised but unrepentant

Egypt releases opposition leader Ayman Nour - 19 Feb 09

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Interview with Ayman Nour on Egypt's Elections

Ayman Nour
Sharon Otterman

Egyptian Presidential Candidate Ayman Nour

Editor's Note: On February 18, 2009, Egypt's government released Ayman Nour, the most prominent of Egypt's jailed pro-democracy dissidents, after for than three years in prison in what was widely regarded as an effort to improve relations with the new administration of President Barack Obama. Nour told the AP that he had no warning about his release, nor could he explain the timing. "Why they did this is unknown," the AP quoted him as saying.

Nour's case has been a staple of U.S.-Egyptian relations ever since his conviction in December 2005 on charges of forging signatures on behalf of his party's efforts to contend in the 2005 presidential elections. He was arrested before the election, but the arrest drew strong protests from U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Nour was released and allowed to stand as presidential candidate of Al-Ghad (Tomorrow), a secular, liberal party opposed to the longtime rule of President Hosni Mubarak.

Official results of the September 2005 voting gave Mubarak 88 percent of the vote, but the election was strongly criticized by international observers. A 2006 report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service noted the elections were widely regarded as fraudulent. Still, even with official corruption, candidates affiliated with the banned Muslim Brotherhood won over 20 percent of the vote, and Nour's "Tomorrow" party won another seven percent.

Shortly before the election -- and just days before he was rearrested -- Nour spoke at his home in Cairo with Sharon Otterman of about his hopes for democracy in Egypt and the wider Middle East:

You’ve just wrapped up your presidential campaign with an enthusiastic rally here inCairo. Looking back, what do feel you’ve been able to accomplish these past weeks?

The campaign was very short, only eighteen days. We accomplished part of our mission to communicate with a huge number people from various sectors of Egyptian society. We had twenty-three rallies and visited eleven governorates. We were the most attractive campaign to the Egyptian people, obviously, with huge numbers of people coming to our events. So we feel we accomplished a part of our goals. When the results are out, they will demonstrate whether the election was free and fair enough to reflect the support we know we have from the people.

What is your best guess as to the final results?

If the elections were free and fair, I believe that President Mubarak would not get a large number of votes. Wide sections of the Egyptian community see that twenty-four years [of Mubarak rule] is a very long length of time to go without results. But if the elections are rigged, anything is possible.

Will the election be rigged?

The election will be neither free nor fair.

Many aspects of this election have already been criticized by domestic and international observers. Despite this and your own concerns, do you think this election represents an important step forward for Egypt?

No doubt, it’s a step, but it’s a limited step. There has already been a democratic system in Egypt, from 1923 to 1952. It is not enough for Egypt to have this election, with all of its flaws. There must be more reform.

When do you believe Egypt could emerge as a fully functioning democracy?

It could happen tomorrow in Egypt. Egypt is ready.

A number of opposition groups, including the Kifaya (Enough!) movement, are calling on Egyptians to boycott the election. They believe it is useless to participate because the election will not be fair. Do you think their stance is counterproductive?

It is their right to choose this option, and I respect their point of view. But I believe that boycotting is not the appropriate answer in response to a ruler determined to stay in power no matter what. I believe we need to participate to bring change.

What role do you think the Muslim Brotherhood play in this election? They have called on their many followers to vote, but have not specified a candidate.

Until now, their stance is still unclear, and I can’t speculate on it. As far as my campaign is concerned, however, it was not my goal to win the support of the Brotherhood or any other group. My goal is to gain constitutional rights for everyone, and to make sure all parties can run for office without restrictions. For their part, the members of the Muslim Brotherhood should participate in this election as any other Egyptian citizens.

Did you seek the endorsement of the Muslim Brotherhood in the course of this campaign?

I went to tell them about my election program. My goal was not more than that, to tell them about my program, to tell them as much as possible about everything I will do if elected. It is the same I would do for anyone else.

Your next challenge after this election will be facing the courts September 25 in the forgery case against you. Do you think the charges could be dismissed?

It is a fabricated case—I know that, and everyone knows that. I believe in justice, and I believe in Egypt’s judges. So I hope for the best.

The Arabist - Ayman Nour released

Ayman Nour released

Ayman Nour on the campaign trail in Menouf, 2005.

Ayman Nour on the campaign trail in Menouf, 2005.

The public prosecutor’s office declared a couple of hours ago that Ayman Nour would be released on medical grounds. I have heard he is now home. There is no further information as to why now, or why previous appeals to release him on medical ground were denied, but this appears to be a political decision. Rather strange timing that this happens a couple of days after the Washington Post urges the Obama administration not to deal with Hosni Mubarak unless Nour is freed.

Let’s assume – with all due respect to the integrity of the Egyptian legal system – that this is a political decision. What’s the rationale? I think the most plausible explanation is that it is not just an overture to Obama that Mubarak wants to change the negative dynamic in the US-Egypt relationship. It is a clear message that says, “look: Bush tried for four years to pressure me. But I do things on my own timing and any pressure is counterproductive.” The message is, before Obama and his administration settle into a clear approach on Egypt (I don’t think the NSC staffer on Egypt has even been appointed yet), that if the same US approach to Egypt continues, it will only generate headaches. It was necessary to release Nour to improve the bilateral relationship, since after the 2006 Democratic takeover of Congress the Ayman Nour case became a congressional issue beyond the control of the administration (in fact Dick Cheney tried to intervene to calm down Congress, and was pushed back.) Over the last two years Congress has put unprecedented (even if still relatively mild) pressure on Egypt by withholding $100 million in military aid (but giving Condoleeza Rice the right to waiver the withholding, which she did twice). Now Congress will not have Ayman Nour to rally support around this, and the cautious State and DoD approach to the Egyptian relationship (which is very strong in military, intelligence, and a few issues aside diplomatic terms) could very well prevail – especially as we’re seeing a new Egyptian crackdown on the tunnels to Gaza, the other big issue for Congress.

So what happens now? Well, Obama staffers have a token sign of progress they can point to, and a lesson that the Bush approach failed. Congress has what it wants. Ayman Nour, under Egyptian law, is now no longer able to run for public office as he has a criminal record. The Ghad party has been torn in half and will take time to rebuild. The legislative and political environment is much worse than it was when Nour first emerged as a national figure in 2004-2005, and repression is taking place much more brutally and systematically. So, most probably, we will see US pressure on democratic reform die down, since policymakers will find it difficult to get support for another direct confrontation with the Egyptian regime. They will wait and see what happens after succession. And for Mubarak, patience and sheer stubbornness won in the end. Which goes to prove that “democracy promotion” is a policy that’s in need of a serious rethink: “pressure” doesn’t really work, and autocracies have time on their side – unless those doing the pressuring are willing to make a serious break with past practices.

For now, I wish Ayman the best and am tremendously happy for his family, especially his brave wife Gameela who fought against all odds for so many years.

"Ayman Nour's release is fantastic", says LI President

Liberal International (LI) President John Lord Alderdice warmly welcomed the release of Ayman Nour of the Egyptian liberal party El Ghad after more than three years of imprisonment, and announced that the next LI Congress will take place in Cairo, Egypt.

Speaking from Kampala, Uganda, where he is currently representing the Liberal International at a meeting of ALDEPAC, the group of liberal and democratic parliamentarians from the European Union, the Pacific, Africa and the Caribbean, Lord Alderdice commented: 'The release of Ayman Nour is fantastic news. First and foremost for his own freedom and well-being, but also as an inspiration for liberal and democratic forces in Egypt. Mr. Nour's courage and determination in speaking out for the freedom of speech, democracy and political freedoms in Egypt, even at the sacrifice of his own personal freedom, have been an inspiration to many. His intended return in politics is a particularly encouraging sign for liberals in the Middle East, who have so successfully established the Network of Arab Liberals (NAL) over the last few years in which Mr. Nour's party is an active member. As members of the Liberal International across the world, we will continue to actively support Mr. Nour and other liberals in the region. It therefore gives me much pleasure to publicly announce that the 56th Liberal International Congress will take place in Cairo, Egypt, from the 29th of October until the 1st of November 2009. “

The Egyptian liberal party the Democratic Front Party (DFP) has been a member party of LI since the 2007 Belfast Congress, while Mr. Nour's El Ghad party is LI's partner that has initiated the process of formal affiliation with Liberal International.