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.

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