Yesterday, prominent Egyptian opposition leader Ayman Nour was released from jail after serving nearly thirty-seven months of a five-year sentence. To the extent that Nour was a political prisoner — he was dubiously convicted of forging signatures on his party registration documents after finishing second to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the 2005 presidential elections — Nour’s freedom is the result of the Mubarak regime’s political calculations. While it is naturally too early to determine the implications of Nour’s liberation, here are some important issues to keep in mind:
1. Although the official reason for Nour’s release was his poor health, the consensus among Egyptian political analysts is that the regime wanted to make a goodwill gesture to the Obama administration. Moving forward, the key question in U.S.-Egyptian relations will be how Washington can reciprocate Mubarak’s gesture while still pressing for gradual political reform. There is no easy answer. If the administration offers Cairo little support in the aftermath of Nour’s release, it creates a disincentive for future liberalization; if the administration goes too far in congratulating Cairo, it will weaken the confidence of Egypt’s liberal dissidents; and if the administration goes too far in demanding more prisoner releases and reforms, Cairo might respond much as it did to the Bush administration — by hardening its domestic position. My prediction: Cairo is now the most likely venue for Obama’s anticipated public address to the Muslim world.
2. Nour is returning to a very different domestic political climate than the one he last experienced in 2005. For starters, his Ghad party — the most prominent opposition party in the 2005 elections — is in tatters. As I noted back in July, the regime has split this party in two factions, bestowing legal recognition on a puppet faction headed by businessman Moussa Mustafa Moussa, who has sued Nour’s faction for using the name of the Ghad party illegally. Moreover, the headquarters of Nour’s Ghad faction were burned in November 2008 and its official newspaper was shut down. In short, before Nour is able to contend again in national politics, he will have to sort out critical issues challenging the viability of his party. Right now, there seems to be one thing in his favor: based on my discussions with Ghad leaders, Nour’s faction appears unified behind him.
3. The Egyptian regime will do its best to keep Nour quiet. The way Nour was released from prison is instructive: even Nour’s wife had no idea he would be returning home — she was out buying groceries and got a call from her doorman — and many of Nour’s Ghad colleagues only learned of his release via satellite television. This gave the party little time to prepare celebrations and press conferences, which was precisely the regime’s goal.
4. If the regime cannot keep Nour quiet, it will do its best to keep him out of politics. The wrench that it has thrown in the way of his Ghad party is part of its strategy. The other barrier to Nour’s political involvement is legal: convicted felons are prohibited from running in elections within six years following their release from prison. This means that Nour is already disqualified from running in the 2011 presidential elections, and cannot run until 2017. Naturally, the regime is confident: it has effectively destroyed its domestic liberal opposition movement over the past three years — imagine what it can do within the next eight.