Egyptian opposition politician released from jail

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Audio Transcript:

LISA MULLINS: I'm Lisa Mullins, and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH in Boston. Today, Egypt did something that the Bush administration had long been calling for � it freed Ayman Nour. Ayman Nour is an Egyptian politician. He had challenged long-time President Hosni Mubarak in the 2005 election. A few months after the election, Nour was convicted of forgery. He was in prison for three years. Today, Egyptian authorities said Nour was released for health reasons. The BBC's Christian Fraser is in Cairo, Egypt. He says Nour has always maintained that the charges against him were politically motivated.

CHRISTIAN FRASER: Well, I think you have to understand that since Hosni Mubarak came to power in the early 80s, no one had run against the President. No one had dared to stand up against the government and against his authority, and then suddenly here was this man standing in the center of Cairo, protesting about how the way the country was being run, about corruption, and about the way that the government was dealing with political dissidence and was getting a lot of attention for it � particularly from the Western media.

MULLINS: Well, presumably the government doesn't like him any more now than they did three years ago when he first went into jail. The government is saying �because this man is a diabetic, he has been in ill health. He's now being released.� But I guess when you look a little bit more closely, there's something more behind his release.

FRASER: Oh, I certainly think there's more to it than that. You're right to say that he is a diabetic. He suffers from high blood pressure and heart problems, so it's not been an easy time for him in prison, and he spent a lot of that time in solitary confinement. But I think this really is designed to win favor from the new US president. America, of course, is Egypt's biggest donor. You might remember a speech that President Bush gave in Egypt in May 2008, pointedly remarking that �too often in the Middle East, politics has consisted of one leader in power and the opposition in jail.� That was clearly designed to highlight the case of Ayman Nour. His wife Gamila has spent a lot of time in Washington. She's lobbied President Bush, she's lobbied the human rights groups in the United States. And we know that Ayman Nour has written to Barack Obama last year as he campaigned for the Presidency. So �

MULLINS: What was the nature of that communication? Do you know?

FRASER: He made it very clear that he was paying for running against the President, that the charges against him were politically motivated, but that he was fighting for the future of Egypt and for the future of the opposition and that he should be supported for that. And he has written a lot of times in a daily column that he writes here in Al Dostor -- it's an Egyptian opposition newspaper � and he also referred to the United States and the work that's going on in the United States to free him in that column. But obviously, given that Hillary Clinton is due here in a couple of weeks time for the Palestinian Donors Conference, this is a time when the Americans are obviously looking very closely at Egypt, and perhaps that's why it is timed as it is � for her arrival.

MULLINS: If the Egyptian government is seen as doing this in part as a tip of the hat to the Obama administration, what does it want from Barack Obama?

FRASER: Perhaps the Egyptians feel that by releasing the likes of Ayman Nour and playing the human rights game in some format, they can in a way show a good face to the outside world without having to go too far, as many feel they had to do in 2005 with these multi-party elections. Let's not forget that Hosni Mubarak is now 80 years old. There is surely somebody within the MDP that is being lined up to take over from him. They need to maneuver their own party into a position which makes it easier for that successor to do that, but they also want to keep the lid on the likes of the Muslim Brotherhood and the GAP party and the Kafayah movement while at the same time carrying favor with the Americans.

MULLINS: All right. Speaking to us from Cairo, Egypt, the BBC's Christian Fraser. Thank you, Christian.

FRASER: You're welcome.