A leading Egyptian dissident, Ayman Nour, who was jailed after challenging the country’s longtime president in the 2005 elections, was unexpectedly freed on Wednesday after years of pressure from the US.
Nour’s jailing has troubled Egyptian-US relations for more than three years and his sudden release may be a gesture to improve ties with US President Barack Obama’s new administration.
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 a telephone interview.
He later told reporters gathered at his home: “I will definitely resume my political activity.”
The prosecutor’s office said in a statement that Nour was ordered released for health reasons. Nour has complained of heart and eye problems and his wife petitioned Egyptian courts for his release on health grounds.
Nour, who headed the opposition Al-Ghad (Tomorrow) party, challenged Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in September 2005 presidential elections, but finished a distant second in balloting criticized as flawed and in which most voters stayed away.
Nour, who is in his mid-40s, was convicted on 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.
In August, Nour wrote a letter to Obama, then a presidential candidate, urging him to help Arab reformers push for democracy in the Middle East.
On Wednesday evening, Nour hugged and kissed family members at his packed apartment in an upscale Cairo neighborhood.
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 cellphone and asked her to come home because Nour didn’t have a key.
When she returned home, she said: “I found him praying in front of our doorstep.”
Nour’s release came less than a week after Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit visited Washington as the first Arab foreign minister to meet US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton since Obama took office a month ago.
It also comes days after US Senator John Kerry held talks with Mubarak in Cairo. There has been talk in Egypt that Mubarak hopes to visit Washington in April.
Mubarak has not been to Washington 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 via border tunnels to the Gaza Strip.
Meanwhile, the US on Wednesday welcomed the decision.
“We welcome this move,” said State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid.
He said the US had no prior notification of the release.
“I did not know that we had any advance warning of this. It is welcome nonetheless,” he said.