CAIRO — An Egyptian dissident whose imprisonment had strained relations between Cairo and Washington for more than three years was unexpectedly freed Wednesday in an apparent goodwill gesture toward the new Obama administration.
Ayman Nour, who ran against President Hosni Mubarak in 2005 and was later imprisoned on widely criticized forgery charges, was released for medical reasons, the prosecutor's office said. Nour, who has heart and eye ailments, was due to be freed in 2010 after serving a five-year sentence.
Nour's case came to symbolize the relentless campaign by Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party to silence political opponents despite outcries from governments around the world and from human rights groups. Then-President Bush and members of his administration repeatedly urged Egypt to release Nour and stop intimidation and harassment that have for years marred the country's national and local elections.
"I have no explanation; it was surprising to me," Nour told the Al Jazeera satellite TV channel upon his release. "I was taken in a car without knowing where I was going, but on the way I knew I was heading home. . . . I hope this is a genuine step that goes beyond me and paves the way for a national reconciliation."
In Washington, the Obama administration applauded Nour's release and complimented Cairo.
"We welcome the news that Ayman Nour has been released on medical parole," said Laura Tischler, a State Department spokeswoman. "We view this as a positive step on the part of Egyptian authorities."
Nour's freedom comes amid talk that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton may visit Egypt in March for a donors conference on reconstruction of the Gaza Strip. Nour had reached out to Obama during the U.S. presidential campaign. In August, he wrote Obama from prison, asking that Washington push for a Middle East that "embodies the dreams of Arab reformers for democracy and change."
Egypt receives nearly $2 billion annually in U.S. military and economic aid. Bloggers, writers and human rights activists across the region have expressed hope in recent months that President Obama will pressure long-standing U.S. allies to loosen repressive regimes and free hundreds of political prisoners. Cairo is also facing increasing pressure from unions and activists over persistent inflation and corruption.
"This release is a way to cool things down a little bit because the whole society is really tensed, protests are everywhere," said George Ishaq, a prominent leader of the Kifaya movement, a grass-roots collection of opposition parties and organizations. "It seems that finally [the regime] started to act in a rational way."
He added: "The timing also has to do with Mubarak's potential visit to the U.S. They wanted to release [Nour] before this visit so that the decision does not seem like a response to external pressures but purely domestic."
The rise of Nour, an eloquent lawyer and member of parliament who founded the Tomorrow Party, posed major political problems for Mubarak's government. Nour, 44, was one of the strongest challengers to the president's rule, and his youthful vigor was seen as siphoning away potential support from Mubarak's 45-year-old son, Gamal, who many analysts suggest is being groomed to succeed his father.
Western countries embraced Nour; he offered a secular option to Mubarak, whose main opposition had been the radical Muslim Brotherhood. Nour lost in the September 2005 presidential election against Mubarak and was defeated two months later in a reelection bid to parliament. He was sentenced in December of that year on charges that he forged documents to illegally register his Tomorrow Party.
Nour indicated Wednesday night that he would return to politics. It is uncertain whether that will happen. Under Egyptian law, a felon cannot run for office. It is also unclear whether Egypt's disparate secular opposition parties can unify around Nour, who staged hunger strikes and mailed political missives from his cell during his imprisonment.
"I don't surrender to any pressures and I will pursue my national role as an Egyptian citizen in the Tomorrow Party," Nour told Al Jazeera. "We will rebuild the party and the Egyptian liberal movement, and we will resume our role in the fight for change and democracy with the same zeal as we did during the presidential elections."
Christi Parsons in our Washington bureau contributed to this report.