Friday, March 20, 2009

"I Won't Wait for the Regime to Give Me Its Blessings!"

Interview with Ayman Nour : "I Won't Wait for the Regime to Give Me Its Blessings!"

Ayman Nour, the chairman of Egypt's liberal El-Ghad party, talked to Arian Fariborz and Mahmoud Tawfik about his party's perspectives for the future and his plan to run for office again in the next presidential elections

Ayman Nour (photo: AP)
Ayman Nour was released from prison in February 2009 after three years – for health reasons, was the official explanation on the part of the judiciary

Ayman Nour is one of the most prominent politicians in Egypt's liberal opposition. Many in the Arab world and the West see Nour, 44, as a liberal standard-bearer and a democratic alternative to Mubarak's authoritarian National Democratic Party and the Islamist opposition in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood.

2005 saw his arrest in the wake of the presidential election, on the pretext of electoral manipulation after his liberal El-Ghad party had gained 13 percent of votes.

According to political observers, Nour's sudden release last February was largely down to pressure from the Obama administration. Washington had categorised his arrest as an abuse of justice.

Although the state excluded Ayman Nour from political activities for five years after his release, he had announced he would be standing again in the next presidential elections in 2011.

* * *

According to many journalists and political observers, your release was a consequence of US pressure on the Egyptian government. Do you share this view?

Ayman Nour: The American pressure was certainly a factor, but I simply don't know enough details to either confirm or reject that interpretation. But I'm sure, of course, that many countries appealed on my behalf.

I'm particularly pleased on this point that the German parliament was one of the first to intercede on my behalf, by protesting against my arrest with a declaration to the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU).

So how do you explain your release at this particular time?

Nour: That's just what I'm wondering! To be quite honest I don't even know myself why I was released from prison now of all times. I can only assume that the regime may have been trying to polish up its image – albeit rather late, as I only had four months left to serve of my regular prison sentence...

photo: AP
A phoenix rising from the ashes? Ayman Nour viewing the burnt-out El-Ghad party headquarters in Cairo after his release

What is the situation for Egypt's liberal opposition at the moment? Particularly after its defeat in the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2005 and the decline of the extra-parliamentary opposition?

Nour: The first thing you have to realise is that the liberal opposition wasn't suppressed simply because it was liberal, but to prevent it from offering a "third way" in Egypt – as an alternative to the choice between the authoritarian regime and the Muslim Brotherhood.

I believe we can pick up this idea again now that I've been released. But to do so, we have to be prepared to enter into a hard and long battle.

What alternatives do you want to offer the Egyptians as a "third way"?

Nour: Our main goal is a constitutional state. We want to offer simple, clear and pragmatic solutions and we are prepared to put these into practice immediately – if we get the chance. If the current regime were ready to give up its power at eight o'clock tomorrow morning, we'd be capable of filling the vacuum by five past eight at the latest, and taking over the business of the state in an orderly way.

We have a very clear, detailed political agenda – the longest manifesto an Egyptian party has ever had at over 1200 pages, with solutions suitable for everyday practice that don't scare people off. One thing you have to know is that the Egyptians tend to be rather suspicious of change.

Gamila Ismail (photo: AP)
Nour had announced from his prison cell that he would run for office in the next presidential election. His wife and fellow political activist Gamila Ismail passed on his statements beyond the prison walls

Apart from that, we have a public profile as a "young people's party" for 20 to 30-year-olds. I myself may be 44, much older than that, but that still makes me only half the age of the old guard of over-80-year-olds.

Egyptian opposition parties – and the Muslim Brotherhood is no exception here – are often accused of restricting their demands to political reforms, whereas they have no clear ideas on the economy. Does the same apply to the El-Ghad party?

Nour: We have our very own ideas of a "third way" as Gerhard Schröder, Tony Blair and many others took with their social liberal reform agenda. But that mustn't keep us from our most important objective. Above all we want to fight corruption – and that can't be done via economic approaches, but only by means of political reforms, through checks and balances and by strengthening the judiciary.

What political role can you take on at all for your party in the coming years? After all, you are subject to certain state conditions that make it impossible to exercise political office freely, particularly forbidding you from running for the coming presidential elections.

Nour: Never mind the conditions – we have means of getting around them. And I'd like to say very clearly to all those who interceded for my release: what you should do now is intercede to defend my rights! My arrest was not about me personally, after all, but about curtailing my rights.
photo: AP
Solidarity with Ayman Nour: hundreds of supporters demonstrated for the 44-year-old politician's release at the start of the court case against him

I am free again now as an individual but at the same time I can't exercise my rights freely, and the impression is that the state is still following a repressive logic by politically immobilising certain individuals – a negative picture that does huge damage to Egypt's image. I for one do not allow myself to be swayed by the feeling that I'm banned from doing anything, and I will run for office in the coming presidential election. I will simply ignore this type of conditions, as I don't source my legitimacy from the state anyway. I won't wait for the regime to give me its blessings!

How does the future look for your party? There was allegedly a split after your arrest, meaning El-Ghad almost disappeared into obscurity after having been one of the most important parties of the new opposition.

Nour: The party did not split in the actual sense. What happened was that a number of members were expelled for giving in to pressure to support Mubarak in the presidential elections.

The state had tried to use them as a Trojan horse to undermine El-Ghad from within. Two weeks before my release, a judgement was passed in our favour, ruling that the party is allowed to reconstitute itself. It's true that the party almost collapsed during my time in prison, but the reason wasn't a genuine division but this state intervention.

There are some critics, however, who say the El-Ghad party revolves solely around yourself…

Nour: That's not the case at all. I am an important part of the party, that's true, as parties in Egypt are essentially not strong as quasi "impersonal organisations". One of the great faults in Egypt's party politics is just that, that the focus on certain individuals plays such an important role here.

But perhaps that's neither unusual nor a bad thing – there's plenty of evidence that that's the case in many countries all around the globe. The best counter-evidence in any case is the fact that I was in prison for four years but the party still exists and has even renewed itself. There are many new young people in the party leadership now.

But as the party's founder I naturally play a role, as it was me who put the manifesto together, provided ideas and gave them a political form. But that's the way it is in Egypt – people can identify more with individuals than with posters and pamphlets.

Interview: Arian Fariborz and Mahmoud Tawfik

© 2009

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