An Interview with Ayman Nour

After 16 months and a series of dramatic hurdles, election day for Egypt finally arrives. Today and tomorrow mark the first round of Egypt’s presidential election with the expected runoff between the two largest recipients of votes slated for June 16, 2012. Originally considered a two-horse race between Amr Moussa, former head of the Arab League, and Abdel Moneim Abul-Foutouh, the former Muslim Brotherhood leader, the race has opened dramatically over the last month. Now, at least five candidates seem capable of making the runoff with the three additions of the Nasserite, Hamdeen Sabahi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s official candidate, Mohamed Mursi, and a former minister of former President Hosni Mubarak’s executive cabinet, Ahmed Shafiq.

Under international pressure, President Mubarak held Egypt’s first ever-contested presidential election in 2005. Dr. Ayman Nour, founder of the independent Ghad Party and an activist with a reputation for causing trouble, challenged Mubarak, earning nine percent of the vote in an election plagued by widespread fraud. Predictably, the government locked Dr. Nour into prison on false charges until his eventual release for medical reasons in 2009.

At the start of the Egyptian revolution last January, over 20 percent of Egyptians said they would vote for Ayman Nour, according to one poll. Unfortunately, in April of this year, the Election Committee prohibited Dr. Nour, along with nine other candidates, from entering the election. In Dr. Nour’s case, his “crimes”— agitating the previous regime— prevented his candidacy. Regardless, Dr. Nour remains one of the most influential liberal and secular voices in the Egyptian political scene.

Last week, I interviewed Dr. Nour in his Cairo apartment. Below are pieces of our conversation:

Egypt is one week from its first-ever legitimate presidential election. As someone imprisoned for participating in its first-ever contested presidential elections in 2005, did you ever expect that Egypt would reach this day?

Honestly, I was expecting a better day than today and a better situation than this one. This election that is being completed now is really just a half-election. The first half of the election occurred far from the ballot box at the hands of the election committee, which removed 10 strong candidates, including me, from the election. None of us were allowed to return, except Ahmed Shafiq [who was a prominent minister in Mubarak’s executive cabinet].

With the day-to-day coverage, we seem to forget how far Egypt has come in 16 months. How does Egypt of today differ from the Egypt of 2010?

If you entered a place that I had recently painted, then, sure, you would at first feel that something has changed. But we wanted to rebuild the country. We did not want to repaint it from the outside. We never reached deep enough to change the structures of the country. We were painting Egypt’s exterior, but we wanted to reform the inside. We want the usual or normal Egyptian citizen to feel like his life was improved by the revolution and he regained his dignity. The demands of the revolution have not been met.

How do you think the failure to write a new constitution before the presidential elections will affect the position of the Presidency after the elections?

Yes, it may affect the transition process, but we don’t want to write a constitution that we will be forced to rewrite a year or two later. We should take a year or the appropriate time to write a constitution that could last a century.

You have discussed the role of liberals in the revolution on many occasions. What should be the political role of liberals if a non-liberal wins the Presidential Election? And how can liberals become influential again in the political scene?

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