A leading Egyptian dissident who was jailed after challenging the country's longtime president in the 2005 elections was unexpectedly freed Wednesday after years of pressure from the United States.
The jailing of Ayman Nour has troubled Egyptian-U.S. relations for more than three years, and his sudden release may be a gesture to improve ties with President Barack Obama's new administration.
Nour told The Associated Press from his Cairo home that he learned he was going to be freed only when a car arrived at the prison to take him home. "Why they did this is unknown," he said.
"I am coming out with an open heart and am ready to work and nothing has changed. A lot of things have been put on hold over the past years. ... I am ready to make a change in this country," he told the AP in a telephone interview.
He later told reporters gathered at his home: "I will definitely resume my political activity."
The prosecutor's office said in a statement that Nour was ordered released for health reasons. Nour has complained of heart and eye problems, and his wife petitioned Egyptian courts for his release on health grounds.
Nour, who headed the opposition Al-Ghad party, challenged Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in September 2005 presidential elections, but finished a distant second in balloting criticized as flawed and in which most voters stayed away.
Nour, who is in his mid-40s, was convicted Dec. 24, 2005 of forging signatures on petitions to register the party in 2004. He said he was prosecuted to eliminate him from politics, and the argument received wide support among human rights groups.
Mentioned by Bush
The jailing came as the administration of then-President George W. Bush was pressing for democratic reforms in the Mideast. Bush specifically named Nour among several dissidents from other countries — including Cuba and Myanmar — during a speech in June 2007 in the Czech Republic that lauded democracy's progress around the globe.
"There are many other dissidents who could not join us because they are being unjustly imprisoned or held under house arrest. I look forward to the day when conferences like this one include ... Ayman Nour of Egypt," Bush said at the time.
In August, Nour wrote a letter to Obama, then a presidential candidate, urging him to help Arab reformers push for democracy in the Middle East. In the letter, Nour said Obama "embodies the dreams of Arab reformers for democracy and change." The letter, published in an independent Egyptian newspaper, was sent to the Obama campaign's e-mail address, according to Nour's wife.
On Wednesday evening, Nour — wearing a suit and an orange tie — hugged and kissed family members at his packed apartment in an upscale Cairo neighborhood, where people gathered to congratulate him.
His wife, Gamila Ismail, told reporters that she hadn't known her husband was free until their building's parking attendant called her on her cell phone and asked her to come home because Nour didn't have a key.
When she returned home, she said: "I found him praying in front of our doorstep."
His lawyer, Amir Salem, told the AP there had been no deal between Nour and the government for him to avoid politics in return for his release. "He told me he will reorganize the party, resume his activities and return to politics," he said.
Desire to improve relations?
Nour's release comes days after U.S. Senator John Kerry held talks with Mubarak in Cairo. There has been talk in Egypt that Mubarak hopes to visit Washington in April. He has not gone there in four years because of tension between the two longtime allies over Egypt's lack of democratic reforms and failure to prevent weapons from being smuggled via border tunnels to the Gaza Strip.
For the first time, Congress last year put conditions on the $2 billion in aid — including $1.3 billion in military assistance — that Washington gives annually to Egypt until it stops smuggling, implements judicial reforms and curbs police torture, which human rights groups say is systematic. Then-Secretary of State Condoleezza later waived the aid withholding.
Arab affairs expert Michele Dunne said it will likely never be clear why Nour was released, but the desire to improve relations with the United States may have played a role.
"At a minimum, I think they would be hoping for a friendlier, more cooperative relationship with the new U.S. president and less criticism of Egypt in the Congress," said Dunne, a senior associate at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
But Egyptian political analyst Diaa Rashwan said he believes domestic considerations had more to do with Nour's sudden release and was skeptical of claims that no deal had been struck with the government to keep Nour out of politics or at least tone down his opposition.
"I cannot believe they would release him to leave him to do whatever he wants. I can't imagine his release would be without some sort of arrangement or agreement, perhaps related to the succession issue ... perhaps that he won't run for president," Rashwan said.
Many believe that the 80-year-old Mubarak, who has been president for more than 28 years, plans to install his son, Gamal, as Egypt's next president — an idea opposed by government critics.