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Ayman Nour's release - symbol and substance

Ayman Nour, leader of Egypt's al-Ghad Party, has finally been released from prison after being arrested on what most people consider trumped-up charges following his challenge to Hosni Mubarak in the 2005 presidential election. (Egypt's al-Masry al-Youm has extensive coverage in Arabic here.) Nour's imprisonment was always outrageous. The Washington Post editorial page and many democracy activists framed his detention as the single most potent symbol of Mubarak's refusal of American pressures on democracy issues. As with the persecution of the civil society activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the imprisonment of Nour sent a powerful message to Americans and to Egyptians alike: the U.S. would not seriously press democratic reform issues and could not even protect its friends.

Why now? Most Egyptian coverage ties it directly to Mubarak's desire to improve relations with Washington by removing an ongoing irritant and offering a fresh start with the Obama administration. Comments a savvy Cairo-based friend:

it is not just an overture to Obama that Mubarak wants to change the negative dynamic in the US-Egypt relationship. It is a clear message that says, “look: Bush tried for four years to pressure me. But I do things on my own timing and any pressure is counterproductive.” The message is....that if the same US approach to Egypt continues, it will only generate headaches. It was necessary to release Nour to improve the bilateral relationship, since after the 2006 Democratic takeover of Congress the Ayman Nour case became a congressional issue beyond the control of the administration.... Over the last two years Congress has put unprecedented (even if still relatively mild) pressure on Egypt by withholding $100 million in military aid (but giving Condoleeza Rice the right to waiver the withholding, which she did twice). Now Congress will not have Ayman Nour to rally support around this, and the cautious State and DoD approach to the Egyptian relationship (which is very strong in military, intelligence, and a few issues aside diplomatic terms) could very well prevail - especially as we’re seeing a new Egyptian crackdown on the tunnels to Gaza, the other big issue for Congress. 

I fear that he's right about the politics of this.  Nour's imprisonment was an important symbolic issue in the U.S.-Egyptian relationship. But his detention was never the only or even the most significant aspect of the regime's crackdown on political opposition, which included the arrest of thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members, heavy pressures on the press and the judiciary, and much more. His release responds to the symbolic issue, but not to the substantive issue.  I'm very happy for Nour and his family, and for the end of the farcical case against him. His release does not come close to reversing the authoritarian trends in Egypt  I hope that this does not become an excuse to begin ignoring democratic reform, human rights and public freedoms issues in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world. 

Photo: AFP/Getty Images

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