Did Egypt free Ayman Nour as a gesture to Obama?

Ben Curtis/AP
In Cairo, Egypt, former Egyptian opposition leader Ayman Nour (c.), spoke to the media after being released from four years in prison.

CAIRO – Egyptian opposition leader and one-time presidential candidate Ayman Nour was abruptly released from prison Wednesday. He served three years in jail on charges that many called punishment for challenging President Hosni Mubarak at the polls.

His release shocked many in Egypt's political and chattering classes. His wife, Gamila Ismail, a political activist and journalist, said it was both "a health release" and "conditional." It is unclear what exactly the terms of that release are.

Mr. Nour, the former chairman of the Ghad (Tomorrow) Party, ran against President Mubarak in Egypt's 2005 presidential race, coming in a distant second with less than 10 percent of the vote.

It was the first multiparty presidential contest in modern Egyptian history, and although few expected Nour to win, his campaign grabbed much of the attention and excited many opposition activists.

Shortly afterward, he was jailed on charges of forging signatures on voter rolls, and many in this country cried foul. The Monitor covered the trial in this story in 2005 and a Monitor editorial the same year called him one of "democracy's heroes." A former member of parliament, Nour became a potent symbol of the thwarting of the Egyptian democracy movement.

Banners calling for his release hung for years outside party offices in downtown Cairo, and had been a standard demand of Western governments and human rights organizations.

Greeting friends, supporters, and a stampede of journalists just hours after his release, Nour vowed to continue his political activities, though not as the leader of his party.

"I will definitely resume my political activities," he told the crowd. "I am still Egyptian. My citizenship has not been stripped from me."

Ms. Ismail, his wife, calls the release "a surprise decision," and called on the Egyptian government to release all other political detainees.

"It is very clear that there is only one man who has the power to decide to release him, and it is clear that this morning God inspired him to release my husband," she said, in a clear reference to Mubarak. "I wish God would inspire him to release all the oppressed people of Egypt."

Ismail denied the assertion that her husband may have been released due to pressure from the United States or other foreign governments, but many political analysts disagree.

Nabil Abdel Fattah, deputy director of Cairo's Al Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies, said Nour's release may have been meant to send a message to President Barack Obama.

"Ayman Nour has been a symbol of human rights in Egypt, and now he is a symbol for the Egyptian government, too," he says. "They are trying to send a new message to the United States and get a fresh start with the new democratic administration in Washington."

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