After Years Of U.S. Pressure, Egypt Frees Dissident

Egyptian dissident Ayman Nour has been released from prison after years of U.S. pressure. Nour was officially released for health reasons. However, the underlying causes may have been an effort on the part of Egypt's president to improve relations with the U.S. in advance of his trip to Washington. Nour challenged Mubarak in the 2005 presidential election. That same year, he was convicted of forging signatures on petitions to register his party for the election.

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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

In Egypt, the country's best-known political dissident was unexpectedly released from jail yesterday. He served more than three years on what critics called politically motivated charges.

Ayman Nour says he has no idea why he's been released but he intends to resume his political activities. NPR's Peter Kenyon has more from Cairo.

PETER KENYON: In the space of a few hours, Ayman Nour went from relative obscurity as an opposition lawmaker, to the hero of Egypt's movement to unseat long-serving President Hosni Mubarak. Nour ran for president in 2005 as the Egyptian regime for the first time allowed a multi-candidate ballot, following intense pressure from the United States.

At the time, officials, such as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were saying that Washington was abandoning its policy of supporting authoritarian regimes in the Middle East in the name of stability. But it quickly became clear that Washington was too bogged down in Iraq to follow up on that threat, and Egypt returned to its heavy-handed ways.

Nour went from opposition hero to a symbol of a renewed crackdown on dissent. After losing badly to Mubarak in an election marked by widespread irregularities, Nour was arrested on forgery charges. He was convicted despite allegations of coerced testimony from a key witness.

Nour suffers from diabetes and heart problems, but authorities rejected repeated attempts to win his release. Mubarak refused to pardon him. Then without warning yesterday, Egypt's public prosecutor announced that nine prisoners, including Nour, were being released on medical grounds.

Nour was driven to his Cairo apartment, where he was greeted by his stunned family. Just a day earlier, close friends had said they had little hope of his being released early. Some analysts speculated that after years of rebuffing the Bush administration's calls for Nour's release, Egypt was hoping to improve ties with the Obama administration.

In Washington, a State Department spokeswoman said the administration welcomed Nour's release. On a trip to Asia, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who met with Egypt's foreign minister just last week, announced that she would attend a Cairo donors conference in March to raise money for reconstructing the Gaza Strip.

Other analysts suggested that the ruling National Democratic Party felt comfortable releasing Nour now that his opposition Ghad Party is in disarray, along with most other legal opposition parties. Only the outlawed but sometimes tolerated Muslim Brotherhood remains a viable threat, but its members are constantly being arrested.

Nour says he will now begin the work of rebuilding his party into a credible secular opposition force.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Cairo.

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