By Eurasia Group analysts Hani Sabra and Willis Sparks
Egyptian opposition leader Ayman Nour was bold enough to challenge Hosni Mubarak in Egypt's first contested presidential election in September 2005. He lost badly, of course, and three months later he was sentenced to five years in jail on fraud charges. But on Wednesday, the pro-democracy activist was released.
What does this tell us about Egypt and its relations with the United States?
First, the decision to release him was certainly made by Mubarak himself. His relationship with the Bush White House had soured by the time Nour was imprisoned in 2005, and Mubarak's refusal to give in to repeated administration calls for Nour's release was one of the factors that brought his regular visits to Washington to an abrupt end. Egypt's president wants to return to Washington -- and to build positive working relations with the Obama administration. By freeing Nour, Mubarak gives Obama and the U.S. Congress a good reason to take a more positive view of aid to Egypt and relations with Mubarak's government. It also strips Cairo's critics in Washington of a key talking point.
More importantly, Mubarak wants Obama to recognize that he will not play the role of America's obedient servant. When Washington applies pressure, Egypt can and will say no. Mubarak is 80 years old. He has held power for nearly three decades, and he wants some respect. The release comes on Mubarak's timetable, not Washington's.
The release of Nour also reveals that at least one Arab autocrat is no longer worried about the post-9/11 drive for democratization in the Middle East. The Bush administration's push for elections did not stabilize Iraq, and it certainly didn't produce the hoped-for outcome in the Palestinian territories. In Egypt, members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned Islamist movement, won more than 20 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections by running as independents. Mubarak has calculated that the Obama administration will not demand that Egypt quickly undertake substantive democratic reforms. Last weekend's bombing in Cairo, which appear to have targeted foreign tourists, reinforces that assumption.
He also reckons that the Obama team is serious about trying to revitalize the Israeli-Palestinian peace process -- and that Washington recognizes that it will again need a stable and willing Egypt to help give US efforts vital credibility with Palestinians and across the Arab world.
In other words, by releasing Ayman Nour, Mubarak is sending Washington the following message: "We know that your pressure on our government will ease now that you need our help. You have stopped making demands of us, and we will give you something you want. Now, what will you do for us?"
At home, Mubarak's decision to release Nour allows him to demonstrate renewed self-confidence. He knows that Nour will have a tough time rebuilding his political movement. He won't talk publicly about Nour or any other pro-democracy dissident. He's above that. But he's signaling that the man he has chosen to free is a minor nuisance, no longer important enough to imprison.
In other words, Mubarak's actions reveal both the limits of U.S. influence in the region and the opportunity a new U.S. administration has to rebuild relations with a key regional power.
VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images
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