CAIRO, Egypt – An Egyptian political 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 U.S. administration under President Barack Obama.
Ayman Nour, who ran against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2005 and was later jailed on widely criticized forgery charges, was released for medical reasons, the Egyptian 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 international governments and human-rights groups. Former President George W. Bush and members of his administration repeatedly urged Egypt to release Nour and stop intimidation and harassment that marred the country’s national and local elections.
“I have no explanation, it was surprising to me,” Nour told the Al-Jazeera satellite network 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 to Obama from prison, asking that Washington push for a Middle East that “embodies the dreams of Arab reformers for democracy and change.”