State on Nour's arrest

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher took questions yesterday from journalists on the arrest of Ayman Nour:

QUESTION: Richard, a prominent Egyptian opposition politician has been arrested, charged with forging documents and held in custody rather than being freed on bail. It's the Ghad party leader, Ayman Nour, whose wife and whose lawyers say that the charges of fabricated documents are trumped up, false. Any comment on that?



MR. BOUCHER: Yeah. We are following the situation. We are concerned by the signal that the arrest sends. Mr. Nour, we understand, was stripped of his parliamentary immunity and arrested on January 29th. He is one of Egypt's most prominent opposition leaders and the arrest in Amman raises questions about the outlook for democratic process in Egypt.



This is the beginning of an election year in Egypt. We're on the eve of a long-planned national dialogue between opposition parties, including Nour's and the ruling National Democratic Party. That is a dialogue that we feel is very valuable and we would -- we find this arrest at this moment incongruous with proceeding with that dialogue.



We're also concerned about reports that he's been roughly treated. We note he's a diabetic who needs regular medical attention and we would hope that he would first make sure that he's properly -- that the Egyptian Government would make sure that he's properly treated and that they would reexamine the issue, given that he is an opposition member of Parliament, and finally encourage the Egyptian Government to provide him with immediate and transparent access to counsel and appropriate legal recourse.



QUESTION: Reexamine what issue?



MR. BOUCHER: The issue of his arrest at this time.



QUESTION: How do you -- I don't think you said in all of that whether or not you have raised this directly with the Egyptians, unless I missed it. Have you raised it with the Egyptians?



MR. BOUCHER: We are making clear our concerns to the Government of Egypt, so frankly, I'm not sure if it's been done today or not.



QUESTION: He was arrested two days ago?



MR. BOUCHER: 29th, I guess it is. Yeah, I don't know if they did it, if we've quite done it yet, but I'll check and see when we have.


I spoke to a few diplomats last night who monitor these issues (not Americans) and they are saying that the US embassy wants to follow this up closely. They also say that they are rather astounded that the arrest happened at all -- from their perspective it is unusually impulsive and doesn't quite make sense. The consensus is that this is probably not about Nour's popularity or power but rather a message saying, "ok, you've had your fun, now get back in line."

There are a couple of other issues that come to mind. First, if the US makes a big deal out of this, there is the risk of a nationalist response in Egypt that will discredit Nour by associating him with America. This is in part what happened to Saad Eddin Ibrahim. Secondly, it might prolong Nour's ordeal because the Egyptians might not want to be seen backing down because of US pressure. Remember it took two and a half years before the case against Ibrahim was dismissed by an independent court because of the lack of evidence. The case against Nour seems similarly weak (for now) but they can certainly drag him through the courts for a long time. Finally, things could get worse: I wonder if Nour's arrest could give pretext for the Higher Political Parties Council, the body that regulates party life in Egypt, to freeze the Al Ghad party. This has happened many times before because of "leadership struggles" in opposition parties -- the Islamist-socialist Labor party is a case in point. It could mean the party could not run in this fall's elections. A conviction against Nour could also mean that he would become ineligible to run again in his Bab Al Sharqeya district in Cairo, where he seems genuinely popular, considerably reducing his political standing.