Editor’s Note: On February 18, 2009, Egypt’s government released Ayman Nour, the most prominent of Egypt’s jailed pro-democracy dissidents, after for than three years in prison in what was widely regarded as an effort to improve relations with the new administration of President Barack Obama. Nour told the AP that he had no warning about his release, nor could he explain the timing. "Why they did this is unknown," the AP quoted him as saying.
Nour’s case has been a staple of U.S.-Egyptian relations ever since his conviction in December 2005 on charges of forging signatures on behalf of his party’s efforts to contend in the 2005 presidential elections. He was arrested before the election, but the arrest drew strong protests from U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Nour was released and allowed to stand as presidential candidate of Al-Ghad (Tomorrow), a secular, liberal party opposed to the longtime rule of President Hosni Mubarak.
Official results of the September 2005 voting gave Mubarak 88 percent of the vote, but the election was strongly criticized by international observers. A 2006 report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service noted the elections were widely regarded as fraudulent. Still, even with official corruption, candidates affiliated with the banned Muslim Brotherhood won over 20 percent of the vote, and Nour’s "Tomorrow" party won another seven percent.
Shortly before the election -- and just days before he was rearrested -- Nour spoke at his home in Cairo with Sharon Otterman of CFR.org about his hopes for democracy in Egypt and the wider Middle East:
You’ve just wrapped up your presidential campaign with an enthusiastic rally here inCairo. Looking back, what do feel you’ve been able to accomplish these past weeks?
The campaign was very short, only eighteen days. We accomplished part of our mission to communicate with a huge number people from various sectors of Egyptian society. We had twenty-three rallies and visited eleven governorates. We were the most attractive campaign to the Egyptian people, obviously, with huge numbers of people coming to our events. So we feel we accomplished a part of our goals. When the results are out, they will demonstrate whether the election was free and fair enough to reflect the support we know we have from the people.
What is your best guess as to the final results?
If the elections were free and fair, I believe that President Mubarak would not get a large number of votes. Wide sections of the Egyptian community see that twenty-four years [of Mubarak rule] is a very long length of time to go without results. But if the elections are rigged, anything is possible.
Will the election be rigged?
The election will be neither free nor fair.
Many aspects of this election have already been criticized by domestic and international observers. Despite this and your own concerns, do you think this election represents an important step forward for Egypt?
No doubt, it’s a step, but it’s a limited step. There has already been a democratic system in Egypt, from 1923 to 1952. It is not enough for Egypt to have this election, with all of its flaws. There must be more reform.
When do you believe Egypt could emerge as a fully functioning democracy?
It could happen tomorrow in Egypt. Egypt is ready.
A number of opposition groups, including the Kifaya (Enough!) movement, are calling on Egyptians to boycott the election. They believe it is useless to participate because the election will not be fair. Do you think their stance is counterproductive?
It is their right to choose this option, and I respect their point of view. But I believe that boycotting is not the appropriate answer in response to a ruler determined to stay in power no matter what. I believe we need to participate to bring change.
What role do you think the Muslim Brotherhood play in this election? They have called on their many followers to vote, but have not specified a candidate.
Until now, their stance is still unclear, and I can’t speculate on it. As far as my campaign is concerned, however, it was not my goal to win the support of the Brotherhood or any other group. My goal is to gain constitutional rights for everyone, and to make sure all parties can run for office without restrictions. For their part, the members of the Muslim Brotherhood should participate in this election as any other Egyptian citizens.
Did you seek the endorsement of the Muslim Brotherhood in the course of this campaign?
I went to tell them about my election program. My goal was not more than that, to tell them about my program, to tell them as much as possible about everything I will do if elected. It is the same I would do for anyone else.
Your next challenge after this election will be facing the courts September 25 in the forgery case against you. Do you think the charges could be dismissed?
It is a fabricated case—I know that, and everyone knows that. I believe in justice, and I believe in Egypt’s judges. So I hope for the best.