Ayman Nour, still Egypt's most prominent liberal opposition politician, has been in exile for a decade now, ever since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's coup in 2013. After leaving Egypt first for Beirut, Nour settled in Istanbul, where he has lived since 2015.
"It was a coup against the revolution, and I left," Nour says in an exclusive interview with Democracy in Exile. "I left Egypt to be able to express my opinion and say what I wanted about what is happening in my country."
Before the popular uprising that led to the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Nour was the face of Egypt's embattled political opposition. He ran against Mubarak in the infamous presidential election in 2005, when Mubarak's regime, under pressure from U.S. President George W. Bush's administration, for the first time allowed more than one candidate on the ballot. It nevertheless ensured that the vote was tightly controlled and marred by irregularities. After he came in a distant second to Mubarak, Nour was arrested on trumped-up charges and spent more than three years in prison. He was unexpectedly released in 2009, in what looked like an attempt by Mubarak's regime to curry favor with President Barack Obama's new administration in Washington, after Mubarak had spent years rebuffing the Bush administration's calls for Nour's release.
In April 2017, an Egyptian court sentenced Nour in absentia to five years in prison for "spreading false news," and Sisi's regime has threatened to strip him of his Egyptian citizenship—like they have other Egyptian political activists and exiles.
"Life in exile has different rules," Nour tells Democracy in Exile. "When you look for a book, you don't find it here, and when a relative or a family member dies, you cannot participate in the funeral." Despite his exile in Turkey, Nour remains politically engaged in Egypt, helping organize opposition to Sisi however he can. In his interview, Nour explains why Sisi's so-called National Dialogue "has turned into a meaningless farce" and why "the most important issue facing the Egyptian opposition is their unity."
Nour also discusses the Kafkaesque reality in Egypt under Sisi's repression. "Some people are arrested, but we do not know why they are arrested and why they are released or why they are not released," he says. "It is almost every day we hear about the death of a new detainee. I don't understand this cruelty."
It is just one part of what Nour calls the magnitude of Egypt's tragedy.
This interview was conducted in Arabic with the assistance of Haneen Khirfan, DAWN's Arabic media manager. The following transcript, translated from the original Arabic, has been edited lightly for clarity and length.
"It is almost every day we hear about the death of a new detainee. I don't understand this cruelty."
- Ayman Nour
You had a longtime friendship with Jamal Khashoggi for more than 30 years. How did you get to know him?
We came to know each other from Al-Hayat, a London-based newspaper. I was the editor-in-chief of Al-Hayat in Egypt and North Africa. Jamal was the correspondent of the newspaper in Jeddah. I think that our first meeting was in London. This relationship continued for 30 years without interruption, even during the periods when I was in prison. Jamal was almost the only non-Egyptian who used to visit me in prison, especially during my last prison sentence. This relationship continued until his last hours or days.
Can you tell us more about the prison visit?
Jamal visited me more than once, but the last visit was vital because it was at the beginning of the election campaign of former U.S. President Barack Obama. I had written an article titled "Message to Obama," which I gave to Jamal to translate into English and send for publication. He sent the article to several American newspapers. The article was published, and I think Obama posted it during his campaign on his Facebook page. This was the most important thing that happened during his last visit to me in prison.
How was Jamal Khashoggi able to visit you in prison, and how could he have helped you then?
Legally, he wouldn't be able to visit me because I was banned from having any visits by foreigners. Visit requests by members of the Council of the European Parliament, Vice President of the European Parliament Edward McMillen-Scott and other VIPs, including Condoleezza Rice, were denied. But Jamal, may his soul rest in peace, used to visit me in a way that involved some deception, as he looked like one of my cousins. He used to use my cousin's ID, as a first-degree relative. Jamal sometimes spoke in an Egyptian dialect, and it was not easy to discover that he was not my cousin.
When Jamal Khashoggi was murdered, many dissidents abroad feared for their lives. Multiple states and spyware companies have hacked your phone. How is the situation five years after Jamal's murder?
It seems that the impunity for the murderers of Jamal Khashoggi has opened once again the appetite of authoritarian regimes and states to harass dissidents abroad. One example of this is the recent reports on the arrest of an Israeli spy network in Istanbul. This network implanted surveillance devices in their targets' vehicles and hacked their home Wi-Fi, and I was myself a target of these activities. This has become a real and recurring danger. Canada-based Citizen Lab discovered the existence of two Israeli spying programs on my personal phone.
Years after Khashoggi's murder and the impunity for the criminals, I think there is indifference to the harassment of journalists and dissidents abroad. The phenomenon of targeting dissidents abroad has risen in recent years.
The Biden administration promised to go after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, but they didn't. Has this created a sense of fear among dissidents who live abroad? Do you think MBS achieved his goal of creating an atmosphere of fear?
The Biden administration did nothing in the Khashoggi case. Mohammed bin Salman escaped punishment for this crime. Did this create a kind of fear among dissidents abroad that they would be pursued similarly?
There is a sense of extreme frustration, especially from the liberal opposition, including myself. We have always had hope that the Biden administration would not abandon the commitments that it had made. We thought that 50 percent of Biden's campaign promises would be broken, under the influence of interests, but not 100 percent. This was shocking, specifically for the liberal opposition in the Arab region in general and abroad in particular.
There is no doubt that the position of the Biden administration can at least be described as shocking, which made us lose confidence in our liberalism, which we used to brag about to other left and Islamic parties. We were greatly disappointed by the Biden administration, whether in the Khashoggi case or democracy in general.
Let me tell you about one serious incident. In his administration, Republican President George W. Bush demanded more than once for my rights and for my release, and he wished to see me at a democracy conference in 2008. However, under President Biden's administration, I was even denied a visa to enter the United States. You can imagine the magnitude of the shocking and unfortunate contradiction we live in during the Biden administration.
In an interview, you said that the killing of Khashoggi is symbolic because regimes can now go after dissidents beyond their own borders. Do you think the way the international community handled the Khashoggi case and the impunity for those involved in this murder is also symbolic, because regimes will now pursue dissidents with no fear of accountability?
The idea of impunity is a very dangerous issue for the international community, not only for dissidents and not only for politicians. It is a dangerous idea in the face of human values. Also, impunity for crimes committed against dissidents is consolidating an authoritarian culture. It is as if states are provinces owned by the leaders of these states, and they can do whatever they want with them.
This is in complete contradiction to all the international values that were established after World War II. We can never separate between the neglect of democratic reform issues in the world in recent years and the expansion of the Putin doctrine and his aggression against Ukraine and other serious problems that threaten global peace and security. Putin's regime is authoritarian, and if there were a real confrontation of tyranny, the aggressive war in Ukraine would not have occurred by this arrogant tyrant. We are facing a state of lawlessness due to the absence of values and because of impunity and lack of accountability. No one is held accountable for any crime committed. For example, Bashar al-Assad is not held responsible for his crimes, and the regional community is rehabilitating him through the Arab League and Arab states, and even through the international community, which has begun to tolerate Assad. These are serious indicators that have been recently destroying humanity's gains.
You were a presidential candidate during the infamous presidential election in 2005 in Egypt. In 2013, after the coup, you left the country. What made you leave the country?
It was a coup against the revolution, and I left. I was in Lebanon for two years. Then I moved to Turkey after my passport expired and the Egyptian authorities refused to renew my passport or travel documents. I left the country to be able to express my opinion and say what I wanted about what is happening in my country. For this, I established a satellite channel called Al-Sharq, an Egyptian opposition channel that played a major role in exposing many human rights violations that occurred in Egypt and in the Arab world.
Have Al-Sharq's goals been achieved?
I did not have personal goals as much as I had a desire for the Egyptian people to have a venue of expression. I was surprised that Al-Sharq has become a venue of expression not only for the Egyptian people but for many peoples who suffer from tyranny and persecution. We are now in the tenth anniversary of Al-Sharq. I think it has achieved a lot of what we wished for, whether in raising public awareness or in challenging oppressors and tyrants.
What would you expect to happen to you if you stayed in Egypt while you do what you do?
I have been arrested five times in my life, and I would never mind being arrested for the sixth time. If I were in Egypt, I would indeed have been arrested. People are now being arrested in my country because of a tweet or a post on Facebook, or even for no reason. Some people are arrested, but we do not know why they are arrested and why they are released or why they are not released. We are in a complicated situation on the human rights level. I am now 59 years old, and I am not keen to spend ten years of my life—and I do not think that I have ten years left—in detention under inhuman and inappropriate conditions for human life. Also, I want to play a role in improving the situation in my country. This is something I would not be able to do if I were in my country. I am now the head of the Union of Egyptian National Forces, an Egyptian opposition group outside the country [formed in 2021]. This position helps me support the oppressed in my country. I would not be able to hold this position if I was in Egypt.
There are an estimated 60,000 political prisoners in Egypt. What do you think the world doesn't know about the extent of human rights violations in Egypt?
We very easily say 60,000 detainees who spent ten years in detention as if this was normal, but those who have experienced detention under normal circumstances know the magnitude of this tragedy. I do not understand how a person is banned from having visitors in prison for five or six years. I don't understand the deprivation of medical treatment or deliberate medical negligence. It is almost every day we hear about the death of a new detainee. I don't understand this cruelty.
Egypt's problem now is cruelty. We have always had detainees, and we have always had female detainees, but the current cruelty—I have never seen before. The real problem that the world does not know, and can only be felt by those who have experienced it, is the idea of cruelty, the idea of being treated with no humanity and no sense of responsibility.
The simplest example of this is that Sisi came out a few days ago in a speech and said: "The detainees are my responsibility before God, so no one should ask me about them, because God will hold me accountable for them." I am not really against the idea that God will hold him accountable, but I am against having a human official asking not to question him about the lives of 60,000 people until after the Day of Judgment. I have never in my life heard of such logic before, and I do not think that this logic has ever existed, even in the days of Hitler. Cruelty and indifference to people's right to life [in Egypt] is the point that neither the West nor the East may be aware of.
"There is no doubt that Sisi is a natural heir to Mubarak."
- Ayman Nour
What is your assessment of Egypt's "National Dialogue"? What does it mean for dissidents and civil society activists?
Sisi called for the National Dialogue two years ago. The call was for a national dialogue that does not exclude anyone. But then it turned out that it does not exclude anyone except for one group. Initially, they said that it excluded the Muslim Brotherhood. We said okay, although I was against this idea of course. Then, this one exception expanded to include all those dissidents abroad, where many of them do not belong to the Muslim Brotherhood, as in my case, and are not even Islamists. After that, the exception extended to everyone abroad, whether they belong to the opposition or not. The exception expanded even further in a way where the regime chooses from within the opposition in Egypt those who are allowed to participate in the dialogue and those who are not. Months after the beginning of the National Dialogue, it turned out to be a dialogue between people with similar views talking to each other.
They also excluded three issues from the dialogue. The first w the issue of amending the constitution, which is the most crucial issue in democratic reform. The second issue is foreign relations; no one was allowed to discuss this. The third issue excluded is national security, which of course, is everything for any country. For example, Ethiopia's Renaissance Dam is a national security issue, but it cannot be discussed in the National Dialogue. Any issue related to Egyptian interests is an issue of national security, but it is not allowed to be discussed.
Any dialogue that excludes most of the supposed participants and excludes most of the issues is meaningless. As a head of a group of dissidents abroad, I extended an invitation to a different dialogue abroad. Thousands of people participated in this dialogue that lasted 100 days, in which all political factions participated, including liberals, independents, Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood, leftists and communists. We called it "the People's Dialogue." This dialogue produced papers with 1,200 pages of recommendations. We printed them in a book. We sent this book to the Egyptian authorities in the hope that they would benefit from the recommendations of this dialogue abroad, but they did not open a single page in this book. Their National Dialogue has turned into a meaningless farce.
Why do you think Egyptian officials did not even look at any of the points raised by your dialogue abroad?
They are not serious about reform. They have made their decisions on some matters, such as the decision to hold local elections, and they will end the dialogue on the points that they decided from the beginning. And what kind of dialogue is this that they will present its outcomes to the president for his approval or rejection? What is this dialogue? And what is the value of it? They could have written a letter addressed to the president and obtained his approval instead of carrying out this dialogue, which was emptied of its purpose.
What do you think of Egypt's presidential elections that will take place in February 2024?
The regime in Egypt sent me a gift on the first day of Eid. The gift was placing me and 80 other liberals on the terrorist list in Egypt. The goal of this was to prevent me from running for elections. In fact, I am not surprised by this, although I have nothing to do with terrorism, and the same is for the other 80 people. They are all members of my party, and we are a liberal party. The list also includes broadcasters and journalists in Al-Sharq, which is a liberal TV channel. It was not surprising that the regime started its electoral campaign by preventing me from running.
We are not sure yet about the seriousness of this election. We have asked for ten guarantees to participate in the election. Four days after submitting these ten guarantees, I was placed on the terrorist list. This is a message to others to terrorize them so that they do not ask for guarantees. This is happening despite the fact that some of the guarantees that were requested reflect what Sisi himself talked about. For example, I asked for international monitoring of the elections. In January 2022, Sisi said at an international youth conference in Sharm El-Sheikh that he is ready to allow for international monitoring of the elections. However, as soon as we requested this, we were placed on the terrorist list, as if what we were asking for was a crime.
Therefore, it is not yet clear to us how serious the electoral process is. The regime will not be serious about the elections unless they agree to guarantees so that the tragedy of the 2018 elections does not happen again.
What do you expect from international organizations like the United Nations and the European Union in pressuring the Sisi government to hold a free and fair election? Do they have even the slightest chance to succeed in this?
The idea of pressure by international organizations is important. However, unfortunately, we do not have much hope in this, as the international community is still largely complicit with Sisi. Although there is a kind of regional abandonment of Sisi by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, there are still countries that support Sisi's survival, either on the grounds that he is facing terrorism, which is a lie, or that he is facing illegal migration, and this is another lie. But in all cases, we should ask the international community, with all its institutions—particularly the United Nations, in which there is a special section concerned with the idea of electoral assistance—to submit clear requests to provide technical assistance and real monitoring over the electoral process in Egypt. We hope the European Parliament takes the same position. If the international community wants the truth, they should request real monitoring of the elections.
What type of pressure could be effective on governments like Sisi's that have a close relationship with the West? Economic or political? What type of pressure do you think they would respond to?
I believe that economic pressure is very effective, but these regimes are willing to sell their clothing and not give up power. It is possible for regimes to sacrifice economic interests, even though this will hurt them, to remain in power.
I am with the idea to have three types of pressure: Economic pressure, and this is very important; political pressure; and gradual economic-political pressure, in the sense that a regime is told that if you agree to international monitoring, we will provide grants of such and such value. If we talk about military aid to the army, for example, it can be linked to progress in electoral guarantees, because I believe that the army will put pressure on Sisi to make concessions and guarantees in this regard.
Some people might think that Sisi's problem is the Muslim Brotherhood, but we can see that he doesn't tolerate liberals either. What does this say about Sisi and his government?
Sisi's problem is with "the other." For him, anyone who does not support him belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood, to the point that this issue has become a ridiculous joke that people laugh at in Egypt. Any bad person belongs to the Brotherhood, even if he is a Christian, and even if he is not a Muslim, because he does not agree with Sisi. This is very dangerous, because Sisi feels that this idea has worked out with the West. The list of 81 people that he issued last Eid, in which I was included, contains Christians. This turned into a joke. Whoever believes that Sisi's problem is the Muslim Brotherhood has a problem.
The U.S. provides billions in military aid to Egypt and considers the Egyptian government an ally. What are the dangers of the U.S. overlooking human rights violations? Do you think U.S. foreign policy toward Egypt has emboldened Sisi?
There is no doubt that Sisi is a natural heir to Mubarak, who had quite a bit of experience in how to deal with crises with the United States and how to absorb these crises through pressure on interests and on matters related to the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian territories broadly, or the Palestinian issue in general, and pressure through relations with Russia and China. In fact, they understand very well how the American administration thinks, and they have large companies, lobbyists and others. There were members of Congress who changed their position as a result of the intervention of these companies, and therefore the regime has become unafraid of America.
America has unfortunately become afraid of a clash with the Egyptian regime. This is a catastrophe in the full sense of the word. It is not only a catastrophe on the governmental and democratic level, but it is also a catastrophe on the balance of regional roles. China's role is now expanding in Africa and the Arab region, and Egypt's unannounced alliance with Russia is taking place on many issues, including the war in Ukraine. This is, of course, not a secret to the United States. There is also the idea of Egypt restoring relations with Iran in the near future. All this confirms the weakness of the American ability to deal with Egyptian affairs.
So Sisi doesn't fear the U.S., even if the U.S. threatens to cut military aid or to sanction Sisi and his officials who are involved in human rights violations? Do you think any of these actions would deter the Egyptian regime, or would it just continue to do what it is doing?
Let's be realistic. The de facto ruler of the country is the military through its delegate, Sisi. The military institution is very interested in the military aid specifically. The threat to cease military aid will change the position of the military on Sisi himself. Thus, the idea of changing Sisi must pass through approval of the military, which will not take such a decision unless it feels that there is a threat to its economic interests, the most important of which is the military aid. The military aid is symbolic, and the military seeks to keep it by all means. I remember when I was a candidate for the presidential elections in 2005, I had a meeting with a number of leaders from the military. The only question they asked in this meeting was: Will you be able to keep the American military aid? This was in 2005. This is a very important issue for the military, and it will not be overlooked.
It's been almost eight years since you left for exile in Turkey. Do you think the Egyptian community in exile in Turkey is safe?
So far, there is no significant threat to them. However, some disturbing issues appear, such as the announcement of the arrest of an Israeli spy network in recent days. My name was among those targeted by this network, which works for Mossad. I got worried, no doubt. This is a natural worry, but not a fear. I felt uncomfortable, but in general and despite the improvement in Egyptian-Turkish relations, there is no huge pressure on us that is unbearable.
Since you touched on the spying network, in early July the Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah revealed that Turkish intelligence had arrested seven spies trained by Mossad to spy on foreigners, especially Arabs, in the country, part of a network of more than 50 people. What's your take on that?
This was not surprising because Turkey is a country open to tourists and foreigners in general. The entry of people working for intelligence services and their recruitment of some Arab or Turkish persons is an expected thing, but the existence of a network of this size targeting a very few Egyptian dissidents, in particular, is alarming. The question is, why Egyptians specifically? I may understand that this may happen with Palestinians or Hamas-affiliated figures, for example, or others. The fact that Mossad is targeting Egyptian dissidents, some of whom are liberal and not Islamist in the first place, is really confusing. I have no answers to this question, and the fact that this takes place one year after two hackings of my phone by two Israeli spyware programs is a matter that I have no logical justification for.
How do you engage with Egyptian society and keep yourself relevant thousands of miles away from home?
The issue of miles or kilometers at the current time is no longer important. When my Egyptian politician friends want to know what is happening in this or that party, or what happened in a court, they ask me because I fully live with the Egyptians. And when some ask me, are you thinking of going back to Egypt? I have one reply: Who said I left Egypt? I live in Egypt even if my body is outside Egypt. My mind, my heart and supporters are all in Egypt, and I am in daily contact with them.
What has living in exile changed in the way you see the world, including politics, activism, and democratic values?
We are talking about ten years, and I do not know if it was the years or the exile that changed many things in my view of all these issues. Ten years is not a short period in human life. Life in exile has different rules. There is no doubt that it is a harsh experience, and this experience makes a person reassess all things again according to the new reality. Certainly, conditions in our country are not better and are not at their best, but residing outside your country is very painful. One example is that when you look for a book, you don't find it here, and when a relative or a family member dies, you cannot participate in the funeral. This is an issue that changes a person's view of life in general and of the political, regional and international affairs in particular. We are now facing a fiercer world than we used to see, and it seems that while we were in our country, we were more romantic than we should have been.
Egypt is going through an economic crisis, with a record-high inflation rate. Is this the biggest challenge the country faces right now?
The main challenge is economic, which is related to the increase in public debt, specifically the external debt, which in less than ten years amounted to $164 billion. Ten years ago, in 2013, it did not exceed $60 billion at its highest. We are facing a situation where external debt has doubled, and there are loans that are due for payment in the next few months. The regime in Egypt does not have any liquidity to pay these loans. The regime in Egypt seeks to sell everything from assets that belong to the people who were not involved in the borrowing decision, nor had a supervision authority on their spending and do not know where these huge funds have gone. We are talking about more than $100 billion. We do not know where it has gone or what it has been spent on. I do not accuse anyone of theft, but of a problem in priorities and of foolishness in spending, at least. This is the biggest challenge that Egypt will face, whether Sisi stays or leaves.
What do you think about the relationship between Sisi and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman? Has the repressive nature of their two authoritarian governments made them closer, or are there differences between them?
Last year, it surfaced that there are many disagreements between them, partly because the Saudi regime believes that it is the actual and real leader of the Arab region, and that it will not allow Egypt to remain in the same leadership position it has enjoyed for many years. The reason, of course, is that the Egyptian regime relies on Saudi Arabia for its financial needs. Saudi Arabia has ceased its unlimited support for Sisi over the past year, and it is no longer a secret that there is a rift between the two men, MBS and Sisi.
As Egyptian opposition, we offered an initiative for reconciliation between the opposition and the Gulf states, but MBS has not yet been enthusiastic about this step, despite his apparent and clear disagreement with Sisi's regime.
When looking at Egypt's opposition in the last few years, what are the things that they could have done better to be more effective?
I believe that the most important issue facing the opposition is their unity. We have succeeded in uniting the opposition through the Union of Egyptian National Forces, but there are splits within the factions themselves, in the sense that the Muslim Brotherhood has been exposed to internal splits. This has reflections on the Egyptian opposition. It is true that there is an alliance that brings us together, but it is an alliance that needs a lot of support because some internal problems within the Muslim Brotherhood are, in one way or another, reflected on the Egyptian opposition. In addition, there is now a rapprochement between the opposition inside and the outside the country, but not to a sufficient degree, as the internal opposition is still afraid of declared cooperation with the outside. Even if there is cooperation now, it is an unannounced cooperation. This also affected the performance of the opposition as a whole.
What about the cooperation between different factions of the opposition, especially when it comes to ideological differences between the Muslim Brotherhood and liberals?
It is natural to have differences in viewpoints on some issues, but there are agreements on some grievances, meaning that we are against the violations of human rights that the Muslim Brotherhood are exposed to, but this does not mean that we agree with many of the Muslim Brotherhood's previous or current positions. I always call on our brothers in the Muslim Brotherhood and in the Islamic movement in general to update their political discourse and stress the importance of separating between religion and politics and between the organization and the party. If they want political action, then they are welcome, as they are Egyptians and they have all rights. But if this work will be done through the religious umbrella, then I think we are facing a problem, and this means that no one has learned anything from past mistakes. I hope that the Islamic movement will reconsider how it presents its political ideas and discourse in a way different from the discourse that allowed for the overthrowing of democracy and of the revolution in Egypt in 2013.