Friday, March 18, 2005

A risk worth taking : an interview with Ayman Nour


Al-Ahram Weekly

Ayman Nour tells Mona El-Nahhas that running for president and working to restore party unity top his post-release agenda

For nearly a month the name of Ayman Nour, MP and chairman of the liberal opposition Al- Ghad Party, has made headlines. Arrested in January on charges of forging thousands of party membership applications, Nour was detained at Tora prison for almost 40 days pending investigations.

On Saturday Prosecutor-General Maher Abdel-Wahed ordered Nour's release on LE10,000 bail. It remains unclear whether the case will be closed or Nour will still have to stand trial. Whatever happens, few members of the public accept the official line that the case is criminal and not politically motivated.

Following his release, Nour was soon back in the headlines, having announced his intention to run for president in the coming elections.

A few days before your release you said you intended to run in the coming presidential elections. What will be the consequences of that decision for your party and for your political future?

I am sure this step will have serious repercussions. I am ready for the risk, though, because I believe it will help outline the future of our society. My participation will help people choose among candidates who are qualified and capable of competing to provide an effective alternative to the ruling party.

With such a target in mind, my freedom or even my life would be small price to pay.

What preparations have you made for the coming elections?

The battle will be fierce. Yet we are ready for it. It is not only our party's battle, but the battle of a whole generation.

We intend to run against the ruling NDP's nominee, whether that is President Hosni Mubarak, his son or somebody else. We will present our platform against theirs, and will ask for an international committee to monitor the elections in order to guarantee transparency.

We are determined not to allow the party to be excluded from participating, particularly after we heard that they intend to tailor the legal conditions with the aim of banning party nominees from running. Doing that will only add another failure to their record.

How do you see your chances of success?

I would bet on the Egyptian people's eagerness for change. We believe they are fed up with seeing the same faces, same party and the same style of administration for 25 years.

You said earlier that your call for amending the Constitution was the reason behind your arrest. Now that President Mubarak has himself asked for a constitutional amendment do you still believe this is the case?

What I said was that my call for amending the Constitution was one of the reasons behind the case. It is not the only one.

I think the main reason was my intention to run in the presidential elections, and although I had not announced that at the time of my arrest it seems they learned of it.

If your calls for amending the Constitution and running for the office of president were behind your arrest, why were other political activists advocating the same cause not arrested as well?

Believe me I have no idea. Ask those who sent me to jail.

You said that destroying your party was the main objective behind the "state- fabricated" case against you. Why then did the government allow the party to be formed in the first place?

It was not their permission that allowed our existence. It was, after all, simply a matter of time before the courts would have ordered the granting of permission for the party to be formed once we filed a law suit against the government.

As I have repeatedly said, the government had no choice but to license the party after they were certain the court would rule in our favour.

At the time it was said the party obtained a licence after cutting a deal with the state. And some people accused the party of maintaining close ties with the government. I believe that time has proved such allegations wrong.

During your absence the party suffered several internal splits. What are your plans to restore unity?

The party suffered no splits but differences in opinion as to how the party should have been run in such a crisis. Some members thought it would be safer to avoid direct confrontation with the state, believing this would help me. Others preferred to put as much pressure on the government as possible.

Some leading party members made statements with which I was unhappy and which were not in line with the party's overall agenda. But we will deal with these issues and re- organise the party in a democratic manner.

Do you think there is sufficient time left before parliamentary and presidential elections to restore the party's strength?

I believe that working under such a strict timetable gives an incentive to the members to get their act together, overcome the ordeal and become much stronger.

Behind bars you said repeatedly that controversial journalist Ibrahim Eissa, appointed by the party's first general congress as editor-in-chief of Al-Ghad's mouthpiece, enjoyed your full support. Yet Eissa was replaced by a journalist from the weekly independent paper Sawt Al-Umma, which has attacked both you and the party. Why?

As far as I am concerned I have no authority to violate decisions made during the party's first general congress. For me Eissa remains the editor of the newspaper.

The decision to replace Eissa was not mine. I was not there when some of the party officials assigned certain journalists, whom I hardly knew, posts on the newspaper's editorial board. In jail I had to accept the will of the party officials to protect Al-Ghad from internal splits.

I'll meet very soon with the newspaper's new editorial board and evaluate the whole matter from a professional perspective. Everything I have heard until now suggests that security pressure was exerted on party officials and that was the reason behind choosing those journalists.

Does this mean the party has been infiltrated by state security?

Frankly speaking, yes. You'll not find a political party in Egypt which is not infiltrated by state security. Yet in our party such infiltration remains limited.

This, I believe, is due to the crisis we are going through and the party's youthfulness. After all, we've only been in the field for five months.

US pressure for your release led some to hint that the party has direct connections with Washington while others accused the party of receiving financial aid from the US.

The Al-Ghad Party is above suspicion. We have never received a penny, from the Egyptian government or from any foreign government. Let them ask US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, if they do not believe us.

Our finance comes mainly from the party's members, who paid all the expenses of the first general congress. Whoever repeats such nonsense is simply mudslinging.

Then how do you explain US support? And do you think such support was the reason behind your release?

I did not ask for this support and cannot be held responsible for it. Yet I cannot blame anyone for supporting me. I am not against foreign support, but against foreign intervention. That we will never allow when our party comes to power.

My release was natural, given that I was the wronged party. The US had nothing to do with my release. If anything, it came as a result of strong popular support.

Some believe that US support may negatively affect Al-Ghad's popularity.

I don't think so. People are smart enough to know who has connections with the US, who makes pilgrimages to the US and who receives financial aid from them.

What is your response to the attitude of the People's Assembly and its Human Rights Committee regarding your case?

Compared with the support I received from the European parliament the People's Assembly was shameful. As for its Human Rights Committee, I think it would be better if they dissolved it. We do not need a committee the only role of which is to mask the ugly image of the state.

I sent a letter to the People's Assembly speaker telling him that my life was in danger. The committee members only started to do something after 10 days and even then faked a report about my health, denying that I had been tortured or had any health problems, while in fact I am diabetic and have a heart condition.

And what about the attitude of the opposition parties?

Some of the opposition parties, the Nasserist Party and Al-Geel Al-Dimoqrati (democratic generation) Party adopted honourable stances for which I thank them. Others preferred not to declare their support for me.

As for the rest, those who took the opportunity to settle old accounts and stab me in the back, I hope they are ashamed of themselves. Their position backfired and instead of harming me they were themselves belittled in the eyes of the public.

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