x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Dissident fights on from prison

He says he spent three years in jail on fraud charges because Egypt's president wants to keep him from running for office.

Ayman Nour, centre, arrives last March under police escort at Egypt's high court, where his appeal to be released from prison was turned down.
Ayman Nour, centre, arrives last March under police escort at Egypt's high court, where his appeal to be released from prison was turned down.

CAIRO // Ayman Nour, Egypt's most prominent dissident, has spent the past three years in jail on fraud charges, but rather than break his spirit, the former legislator and opposition politician said it has made him even more determined to carry on his fight for democracy. Mr Nour shot into the limelight in 2005 when he entered the country's first multi-candidate presidential elections. But soon after setting up his party, he was arrested and charged with forging documents to get a permit, charges his allies said were politically motivated. His detention drew condemnation from the United States, and three months later he was released and allowed to contest the elections, which saw him draw close to Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's president since 1981. It was a short-lived victory. Three months later he was tried for fraud and sentenced to five years in prison.

"Most of the time I feel that I didn't enter prison; that I'm in a constant battle since I ventured into the presidential race: fighting for Egypt's freedom, which is a fight I will wage till the last breath in my life," Mr Nour told The National on Saturday in a rare interview at Tora prison, on the outskirts of Maadi, east of Cairo. "I'm paying the price for a crime I didn't commit, just because Mubarak wants to prevent me from competing with him or his son," said Mr Nour in a reference to Gamal Mubarak, 44, who many believe is being groomed to inherit power from his father, now 80.

Last week, George W Bush, the US president, called for the release of Mr Nour, 44, along with several other democracy campaigners, as part of his "freedom agenda" campaign, but many Egyptians, including Mr Nour, believe the move was more damaging than helpful. "Bush's initiative is kind and very important in its timing, as it came just 24 hours after Mubarak decided to keep me in prison," said Mr Nour, referring to the Egyptian president's pardon of 1,500 prisoners on July 23.

"But I can't say that the American administration has always been serious in pushing for my release. Sometimes it gave priority to principles, but more often interests prevailed," he said. The Washington Post called Mr Mubarak's decision to keep Mr Nour in jail a "slap in the face" for the US president. But local media said it was well-deserved and would teach Mr Bush not to interfere in the country's affairs.

"Thanks be to God that The Washington Post considered not releasing Ayman Nour to be an insult to president Bush," wrote Karam Gabr, chairman of the board of the state-owned Rose El Youssef. "Most Egyptians feel happy because the slap on Bush's face will be repeated every time he intervenes in what is not his business," he wrote. Washington's repeated calls to Cairo to improve its human rights record have strained ties between the two allies, with Mr Mubarak boycotting a meeting in May in which Mr Bush again pushed for multiparty democracy.

International human rights groups have also criticised Mr Mubarak for a heavy-handed approach in dealing with dissidents. Sixteen activists were arrested on July 23, a national holiday to mark revolution day, for wearing "April 6" T-shirts, singing national songs and demanding the release of Mr Nour and other activists. They were ordered detained for 15 days. Amnesty International said the youths were attacked by riot police and security forces who used tear gas and beat them.

April 6 refers to the date this year when a number of bloggers, activists and opposition groups called for a nationwide strike in support of textile workers in the city of Mahalla, north of Cairo, who were demanding better pay and conditions. Three people were killed and dozens wounded by security forces. As many as 55 people are still in detention. Wael Abdel Fattah, an Egyptian columnist with the Lebanese daily Al Akhbar, said the government was trying to scare the opposition from entering the political arena.

"We were expecting the arrests, but there is no other way for changing this regime, and stopping the widespread corruption in all fields, than protesting peacefully," said Waleed Rashed, 24, a spokesman for the April 6 Youth group. Some of the April 6 organisers and the activists arrested on July 23 were members of Mr Nour's el Gihad (Tomorrow) political party. "It's shocking what happened to those youth; as much it gives hope that they are demanding my freedom and pressing for what I was imprisoned for," said Mr Nour, smoking a cigarette in the office of the prison's director, where the one-hour visit took place.

"The youth and I are weak, but you know what, the regime that is scared from us is weaker, despite its oppressive might," he said. Also at the interview was Gamila Ismail, Mr Nour's wife, a former TV anchorwoman whom he married in 1989. The couple, who have been married since 1989, have two sons, aged 16 and 17. "Despite grave losses to my health, my family, my party and finances, I feel prison has earned me more credibility among the youth and average Egyptian, despite the state's tarnishing campaigns against me," he said, referring to state-run newspaper articles that paint Mr Nour as a fraudster. "The enlightened people, and those who hate the regime, and they are many, know that they are lying," he said.

Mr Nour is diabetic, and suffers from high blood pressure and heart problems. His medical problems mean he is kept separated from other prisoners at the prison "hospital" where he sleeps on a bed, not the floor like other inmates. Despite the hardships of prison life, he tries to keep to the same routine: waking at 4am for morning prayers, and listening to the radio, including the BBC, Monte Carlo and the American-funded Sawa.

"I feel the broadcasters and the listeners who comment on newscasts and programmes from around the globe are my friends," Mr Nour said with a smile. "I also watch the Egyptian channels ? I read and write ? cook my own food and go to sleep at 11pm." Since December, Mr Nour has been writing a daily column called Nour's Window in el Destour, an Egyptian opposition newspaper. He said he has also written four or five books, and is waiting to have them published when he is released.

"It was very difficult at the beginning of my stay here - clashes and fights - but now, I feel nothing matters to me, prison really killed the fear of anything in my heart, and made me much closer to God." @email:nmagd@thenational.ae