Excellent, if surprising, news for democracy and political reform in Egypt – dissident and one-time opposition party candidate for President against Hosni Mubarak, was released quite abruptly from prison yesterday:

Mr. Nour, a charismatic political leader who challenged the governing parties’ monopoly on power, said his more than three years in prison came to an abrupt end when he was taken from his cell late in the day. He was driven to his apartment building, took the elevator to the eighth floor and rang the doorbell. Soon he was in the arms of his 17-year-old son, Shady.

An hour later, as he greeted a crowd of reporters, photographers, family and friends in his living room, Mr. Nour said: “It is a surprise! There was no prior plan for it and there were no negotiations over anything.” He seemed fit and trim, stunned and unbowed by his experience. He said he planned to help rebuild his political party and push for democratic reforms in Egypt.

“Prison,” he said, “makes heroes and symbols out of men.”

Indeed it does.

The only reason Nour was imprisoned was because he posed a genuine threat to Mubarak’s regime from within the (highly rigged) system. His release was probably for much the same reason – in prison, he was becoming a hero and symbol to his countrymen, as he put it. The threat to Mubarak’s autocracy by having him inside prison as afocal point became greater than having him run free. The Egyptian government’s feeble response to the Gaza conflict next door also had inflamed public opinion, so the regime clearly needed a release valve; it’s also likely they wanted to try and curry some favor with the new Administration in the US.

It’s also worth noting that President Bush probably deserves some of the credit for the conditions leading to Ayman Nour’s release. Bush himself mentioned Nour in a 2007 speech, but in a larger context the increasingly improving security situation in Iraq means that Egypt’s favored position as regional Arab ally to the US is increasingly threatened. The emphasis on democracy promotion by the Bush Administation – which the Obama Administration seems commited to continuing – has had a concrete effect on the expectations of the Arab populace. The very fact that Ayman Nour ran for President in 2005 and challenged Mubarak is partly due to this change in atmosphere across the Arab world after the Iraq War.

Ironically, Ayman Nour’s release underscores just how rigged the system remains:

Mr. Nour was convicted in 2005 of forging signatures on petitions he had filed to create his party. The case was widely seen as politically inspired. He only needed 50 signatures, but turned in thousands.

He would have been eligible for parole in July. His early release was interpreted by his family, his supporters and political analysts as a purely political gesture. It came at a time of mounting pressure on Egyptian officials over their handling of the Gaza crisis, and the summary arrest of protesters, bloggers and Islamists. While his release was welcomed, it was also seen as evidence that Egypt’s justice system was ruled by decree, not law.

“I am happy he is out, but I am sad that the executive power and the president can interfere directly in judicial outcomes,” said Alaa Aswani, a writer and sharp social critic of Egyptian society. “The president can put someone in jail and can pardon him and then look for a legal pretext. This is the sad part.”

Mr. Nour’s imprisonment ended Egypt’s brief experiment with allowing opposition politics to flourish. His Al Gahd Party had become the only legal opposition with a growing, anti-establishment following. In 2005 Mr. Nour garnered 600,000 votes in his bid for the presidency, placing a distant second behind Mr. Mubarak in a race controlled by the president’s governing party.

From here, Nour is free to try and rebuild a genuine opposition party – at least until Mubarak cracks down again. The calculus by Mubarak is likely that Nour can be contained; I think he will find he is much mistaken in that regard, for everything has changed a great deal in the past four years. As the story notes, Nour is well-aware of the opportunity:

“Jail changed me in that I read more in those four years than I have read in 40 years, and I have written more in those four years than I have written in 40 years,” [Nour] said. “I do not regret anything.”

He then drove off to appear on one of Egypt’s most popular late-night talk shows.

UPDATE: Over at The Arabist, they take a decidedly more pessimistic tone, noting that Nour will be on a tight leash:

So what happens now? Well, Obama staffers have a token sign of progress
they can point to, and a lesson that the Bush approach failed. Congress
has what it wants. Ayman Nour, under Egyptian law, is now no longer
able to run for public office
as he has a criminal record. The Ghad
party has been torn in half and will take time to rebuild. The
legislative and political environment is much worse than it was when
Nour first emerged as a national figure in 2004-2005, and repression is
taking place much more brutally and systematically. So, most probably,
we will see US pressure on democratic reform die down, since
policymakers will find it difficult to get support for another direct
confrontation with the Egyptian regime. They will wait and see what
happens after succession. And for Mubarak, patience and sheer
stubbornness won in the end
. Which goes to prove that “democracy
promotion” is a policy that’s in need of a serious rethink: “pressure”
doesn’t really work, and autocracies have time on their side – unless
those doing the pressuring are willing to make a serious break with
past practices.

In other words, the release benefited Mubarak politically with his relationship with the US, in terms of actually reducing the amount of pressure for democratic reform. meanwhile, Nour won’t be in a position to lead politically since he has been neutered by Egyptian law from the process.

Still, if Nour can carve out a niche as a public intellectual, he may still be able to wield uncommon influence over public opinion. I hope he is up to the task. It’s dangerous work – just ask Naghib Mahfouz.

Related: more commentary at POMED and from Marc Lynch. Overall, little reason for optimism from these seasoned foreign policy analysts.

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