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.