Egypt Frees a Dissident: A Gesture for Obama?

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Amr Nabil / AP

Former Egyptian opposition leader Ayman Nour, right, greets supporters as he arrivesl at his party's headquarters, in Cairo, Egypt, Nouri was unexpectedly released from prison on Wednesday after serving more than three years.

Ayman Nour was released from prison on Wednesday, but not even his wife knew that he was coming home. Egyptian authorities jailed the opposition leader in 2006 on charges of electoral fraud, but his imprisonment was widely seen as an effort to silence President Hosni Mubarak's most outspoken critic. Nour's wife Gamila Ismail, who organized "Free Ayman Nour" protests, often despaired that her husband, who suffers from diabetes and other ailments, would remain in prison until the end of his five-year sentence in Cairo's notorious Tora prison. And so, when Nour finally arrived at his apartment as a free man, he didn't have keys and nobody answered the door.

Egypt's attorney general cited "medical reasons" for Nour's release even though Egyptian courts had repeatedly denied Nour's request for a pardon on those grounds. Many see politics behind the decision. Mubarak, 80, wants to improve relations with the new Obama administration, following eight years of cold relations with the Bush administration that were frosty in part due to Nour's imprisonment. "Does Mubarak want to risk another four years of bad relations with the United States? I don't think so," says Hesham Kassem, former deputy leader of Nour's liberal, secular al-Ghad party. "If [Nour's imprisonment] had gone on into the Obama administration, then we were not talking about a Mubarak-Bush problem anymore, but an Egyptian-American problem." (See pictures of people around the world watching Obama's Inauguration.)

Cairo-Washington relations have been chilly over numerous issues, including U.S. handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the American invasion of Iraq as well as disagreements over domestic reform in Egypt. The U.S. froze negotiations on a free trade agreement with Egypt after Nour was handed his prison sentence; Mubarak, in turn, halted his regular visits to Washington. In contrast, Mubarak appears elated by Obama's decision to plunge immediately into Arab-Israeli peacemaking, and gave a warm welcome last month to George Mitchell when the new U.S. special envoy made Cairo the first stop of his first Middle East tour. Last week in Washington, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit, who bitterly sparred with former Secretary of State Condeleezza Rice over Nour, became the first Arab counterpart to meet with Obama's top diplomat, Hillary Clinton.

The freeing of Nour, 44, not even a month after Obama assumed office, is also being seen partly as a final snub of President Bush, whose administration repeatedly and publicly pressured Mubarak to free Nour. "Bush was gone Jan. 20," says Kassem. "They had it out together, and Mubarak had his way. Mubarak came out on top. When is the perfect timing to release Ayman Nour? Within a few weeks of Obama coming in." (See pictures of George W. Bush in the Middle East.)

Yet it's far from certain that Nour's release heralds an easing of the regime's pressure on opponents and critics. Within the last two weeks, for example, Egyptian state security agents reportedly detained and held without charge for four days an Egyptian-German blogger, Philip Rizk, who had protested what he saw as the regime's inadequate support of Paletinians during the recent Gaza conflict with Israel. Human Rights Watch has denounced Egypt's "appalling domestic rights record," citing alleged "torture in police stations, arbitrary arrests of non-violent dissidents and crippling restrictions on civil society organizations." Rights groups have also criticized Egypt's state of emergency, which has remained in force throughout Mubarak's five terms as President.

A better indication of the regime's intentions will be seen in how it deals with Nour following his release. Within hours of tasting freedom, Nour told reporters that he intends to re-enter politics despite the ban imposed on political activity imposed by his conviction. In the 2005 election, Nour was runnerup, winning 7% of the vote to Mubarak's 88%, but government pressure, possibly including fires that damaged al-Ghad's offices, has decimated Nour's party. In its court prosecution of Nour, the government charged that he had forged signatures on documents required for registering al-Ghad to become a political party. Regime critics have speculated that the regime sought to silence Nour because he posed a threat to the prospects of Mubarak's son, Gamal, 45, to become Egypt's next president.

Nour has a long way to go to rebuild his political career. Though he gained respect for defying Mubarak and enduring a prison sentence, few Egyptians see the freed prisoner as a local Nelson Mandela. Many value Mubarak's National Democratic Party for bringing stability, while large numbers of government opponents support the banned Muslim Brotherhood group. Nonetheless, some observers believe that Nour's release may be an indication of greater freedom to come for all opposition parties. "This is a positive sign," says Hala Mustafa, editor of the Egyptian journal Democracy. "In the end, the regime showed a relative tolerance toward one of its fierce opponents. It is a sign that maybe the regime is willing to compromise. Before, the regime [used to shut] the door for any compromise. Political openness is a must, and it is very difficult to turn back."

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