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

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