- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 19, 2009

A leading Egyptian dissident, Ayman Nour, who was jailed after challenging the country’s longtime president in the 2005 elections, was unexpectedly freed Wednesday after years of pressure from the United States.

Mr. Nour’s jailing has troubled Egyptian-U.S. relations for more than three years, and his sudden release may be a gesture to improve ties with President Obama’s new administration.

Mr. Nour said from his Cairo home that he learned he was going to be freed only when a car arrived at the prison to take him home. “Why they did this is unknown,” he said.

“I am coming out with an open heart and am ready to work, and nothing has changed. A lot of things have been put on hold over the past years. … I am ready to make a change in this country,” he said in the telephone interview.

He later told reporters gathered at his home: “I will definitely resume my political activity.”

The prosecutor’s office said that Mr. Nour was ordered released for health reasons. Mr. Nour has complained of heart and eye problems, and his wife petitioned Egyptian courts for his release on health grounds.

Mr. Nour, who headed the opposition Al-Ghad party, challenged Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the September 2005 presidential elections, but finished a distant second in balloting criticized as flawed and in which most voters stayed away.

Mr. Nour, who is in his mid-40s, was convicted Dec. 24, 2005, of forging signatures on petitions to register the party in 2004. He said he was prosecuted to eliminate him from politics, and the argument received wide support among human rights groups.

On Wednesday evening, Mr. Nour - wearing a suit and an orange tie - hugged and kissed family members at his packed apartment in an upscale Cairo neighborhood, where people gathered to congratulate him.

His wife, Gamila Ismail, told reporters that she hadn’t known her husband was free until their building’s parking attendant called her on her cell phone and asked her to come home because Mr. Nour didn’t have a key.

When she returned home, she said: “I found him praying in front of our doorstep.”

His attorney, Amir Salem, said there had been no deal between Mr. Nour and the government for him to avoid politics in return for his release. “He told me he will reorganize the party, resume his activities and return to politics,” Mr. Salem said.

Mr. Nour’s release comes days after Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, held talks with Mr. Mubarak in Cairo. There has been talk in Egypt that Mr. Mubarak hopes to visit Washington in April. He has not gone there in four years because of tension between the two longtime allies over Egypt’s lack of democratic reforms and failure to prevent weapons from being smuggled through border tunnels to the Gaza Strip.

For the first time, Congress last year put conditions on the $2 billion in aid - including $1.3 billion in military assistance - that Washington gives annually to Egypt until it stops the smuggling, implements judicial reforms and curbs police torture, which human rights groups say is systemic. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice later waived the aid withholding.

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