An interview with Noor Ayman Nour

Egyptian activist speaks out about the detention of Alaa Abdel Fatah and military trials.

Alaa Abdel Fatah is currently imprisoned for refusing to answer questions before a military court [Noor Ayman Nour]

Noor Ayman Nour, son of former presidential candidate Ayman Nour, is an active member of the No To Military Trials movement in Egypt, which has been working to raise public awareness of the 12,000 civilians, many of them activists, currently jailed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

Professor Mark LeVine interviews Noor Ayman Nour about activism, military trials and the state of Egyptian politics.

Mark LeVine: Can you clarify the circumstances surrounding the arrest of [blogger] Alaa Abdel Fatah?

Noor Ayman Nour: Alaa was brought in for questioning along with his colleague Bahaa Saber – both of whom were jailed together back in 2006 by the Mubarak regime – for their activism and writings against the military government. Alaa in particular seems to have angered them with his eye-witness account of the killing of Coptic protesters in the Maspero district of Cairo three weeks ago.

Specifically, Alaa was to be questioned for inciting violence against members of the armed forces, seizing a weapon, and the destruction of army vehicles. He and Bahaa were questioned simultaneously, and both refused to answer any questions put forth by the military prosecutor, saying that because they were civilians they should not be questioned or tried by a military court.

But Bahaa was released, while Alaa was remanded into custody for 15 days for further questioning. He was subsequently sent to the cassation prison in downtown Cairo. We went yesterday with his wife, Manal, and his sister to deliver food and clothes to him, as it was his first day, he was unlikely to have anything [given to him]. In the prison they are aware that he’s well known, so it seems so far he hasn’t suffered any mistreatment. But we don’t know this for sure, because his wife and sister tried to visit him this morning and were denied permission to see him – on the grounds they needed a permit from the military prosecutor on the other side of Cairo in order to do so.

ML: Manal, who co-founded the seminal Egyptian blog Manal and Alaa’s Bit Bucket with Alaa, is nine months pregnant.

NAN: Yes, she’s due to give birth next week. So it’s not really possible for her to be running across Cairo just to obtain a permission she shouldn’t need.

ML: Are Alaa and Bahaa the first two activists to refuse to answer questions before a military court?

NAN: They are the first to do so in such a public fashion. Michael Nabeel, another activist, did so before them, when he was brought in to be retried and he refused to accept a retrial, saying: “I refuse to be retried in front of the military court.” In response to this move, they sent him to a mental hospital for the week. This is what SCAF does to activists in Egypt today.

In fact, this is the exact same regime that uses the exact same tactics and techniques as it always has used. And among these techniques for silencing activists are spreading rumours and lies against people. So there have been huge online campaigns against Alaa started by SCAF and its online thugs, trying to defame him by putting up photos of him drinking beer, saying “We are a conservative society”, and the like, as if – because he drank a beer – he is not a true Egyptian and people shouldn’t care what happens to him.

There is this strange phenomenon of this young, 22-year-old counter-revolutionary blogger who’s been targeting the main activists over the last several months to defame them by starting conspiracy theories and the like, and the Egyptian media are giving him the spotlight and the ability to go and file suits against certain people. It’s amazing, but this is how the power structure still functions, in the government and government-owned or aligned media.

ML: This really seems like deja vu all over again…

NAN: Yes, we are literally back five years ago, just without Mubarak.

ML: Of course Alaa is just one example of a larger problem. What does the current situation suggest about the possibility of having free elections in November?

NAN: It’s not just elections, it’s so much more. Elections really can’t happen under these circumstances, or at least they shouldn’t happen. The main problem is the fact that it’s gone way beyond SCAF not merely cooperating with the transition. They are flat-out targeting people. People were noting the fact that Alaa is one of the few people that had a #FreeAlaa campaign, both before and after the revolution. That says it all about where we are nine months after Mubarak left power.

So far, there haven’t been many calls by leading politicians or candidates to suspend the elections. My mother [Gamila Ismail, who is running for a seat in parliament in the coming elections], declared that she would freeze her campagin as result of Alaa’s detention. I’m not sure about the others.

ML: What has the response been from the Muslim Brotherhood or candidates representing the religious tendency?

NAN: I have heard of some Islamist figures coming out and speaking for him. But mainstream Islamic figures have not come out and offered support, at least that I have seen. I could be wrong.

The US did nothing during the protests last February to support the people and have done nothing since.”

– Noor Ayman Nour

ML: Given all that’s happening in the lead-up to the elections, the retrenchment of the political situation to the pre-revolutionary period, what can Egyptian activists do to remobilise the large number of people necessary to force SCAF to move towards democracy?

NAN: Well, there aren’t specific steps we can take to get people back on their feet. The problem is that there needs to be some sort of catalyst. In January we had the Tunisian revolution, but now we are still waiting for something really big. Perhaps a series of catalysts to build something up, like Maspero, Alaa’s detention and other events. Or maybe, one huge event that makes people forget everything else and come out into the streets en masse.

ML: The mass killings at Maspero weren’t enough?

NAN: It seems not. The government propaganda is quite strong. So far, there is no official alternative that has been put forth by the main revolutionary parties and organisations. But many grassroots initiatives are underway, like our initiative against military trials, aimed at restructuring the court system, education, and putting deadlines for SCAF to set presidential elections and give back power to civilians.

ML: You were, in fact, facing a similar situation to Alaa and Bahaa. What’s going on with your trial?

NAN: It turns out that they were bluffing. I was going to go through the same procedure as Alaa, but turned out to be total nonsense, and they didn’t proceed.

ML: Just as Alaa has a well-known pedigree as a human rights activist – both his father and his wife’s father are among the most important human rights activists in Egypt – your activism comes from your parents. Not just your mother, but your father, Ayman Nour, who ran against Mubarak in 2005 and was subsequently jailed for several years on corruption charges. After being released unexpectedly last year and announcing his intention to run again after Mubarak’s departure, he was surprisingly refused the expected retrial that would have cleared his name and legally allowed him to run for president. What is his current situation and plan?

NAN: Yes, his appeal was refused. Today was the first day they released the reasons for not accepting his appeal, and we were dumbfounded to find out the main reason they refused appeal. The judge openly confessed that while there was new evidence that proves his innocence, the court cannot accept it for procedural reasons, in order to respect previous judgments. 

ML: What is the role of the US and the Europeans in Egypt at this point?

NAN: I will tell you honestly, when you come to compare the role of the US to that of the Europeans, the US is doing nothing. Look at statements of the European Parliament or the EU; they are taking a much more active role and concern in matters related to human rights and democracy in Egypt. But it’s a complex situation. The problem is that if the US came out and made an official statement regarding Egypt, people here would say “Look what’s happening in Oakland, with Occupy Wall Street. Who is the US to say anything about police brutality?” and the like.

SCAF has successfully hijacked this revolution and turned it into a military coup.

– Noor Ayman Nour

This wouldn’t just be conservatives saying this, but, ironically, progressives as well. One of the few things that most people agree on is for the US not to intervene in our affairs because the US was the backbone of the Mubarak regime for 30 years and hence, anything they say now lacks credibility, especially since the US did nothing during the protests last February to support the people and have done nothing since.

ML: Egyptian activists have greatly inspired the Occupy Wall Street movement and were recently in the US meeting with activists. What can activists in the US and European Occupy movements do to help now?

NAN: What we need now is not just a world campaign to free Alaa, but against the entire system of military trials. It’s extremely ironic, tragic, that Alaa’s sister, Mona Seif, who has spent the past eight months of her life solely dedicated to helping people dealing with the military trials, now has to deal with her brother facing the same situation.

ML: How does Alaa’s detention reflect the reality – versus the image – of where Egypt is, nine months after February 12?

NAN: If there is one broad message that people need to understand, it’s that SCAF has successfully hijacked this revolution and turned it into a military coup, but one disguised with revolutionary legitimacy. They are not legitimate representatives of Egypt, but merely a body holding Egypt by force. We request that no moral or financial or diplomatic support be given to this regime, but rather only to the people. So foreign policy should be made by other countries towards the Egyptian people, not the current government.

ML: What will you do now?

NAN: Well, today – it’s already past 7pm – I still have to go to a No To Military Trials meeting, then to a demonstration for Alaa and then to a press conference for my father. Tomorrow is another day.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. His most recent books are Heavy Metal Islam (Random House) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

More from Author
Most Read