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World News

Egypt takes swipe at Bush over democracy remarks

CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt has dismissed as “unacceptable” U.S. President George W. Bush’s call for the release of jailed opposition leader Ayman Nour, saying it was an internal issue that Washington should stay away from.

Opposition leader Ayman Nour stands in a court in Cairo January 23, 2007. Egypt has dismissed as "unacceptable" President Bush's call for the release of Nour, saying it was an internal issue that Washington should stay away from. REUTERS/Nasser Nuri

Gamila Ismail, Nour’s wife, also told Reuters Bush’s remarks in a speech about democracy in Prague on Tuesday, could have a negative effect on the legal appeal her husband had filed for an early release on health grounds from a 5-year jail sentence for forgery charges he says were fabricated.

“What President Bush said about Egypt is an unacceptable interference in our internal affairs,” state newspapers quoted Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit on Wednesday as saying.

“The depth of Egyptian-American relations allows Egypt to express its astonishment and upset toward these statements.”

Bush said Washington was using its influence to urge countries like Egypt “to move toward freedom”. He also called for “the immediate and unconditional release” of Nour, and other political prisoners from Burma, Vietnam, Belarus and Cuba.

The remarks earned him another scathing attack from the Egyptian parliament’s foreign relations committee.

“The U.S. President should have talked about the prisoners of Guantanamo who are deprived of the simplest of legal defence guaranteed by all human rights conventions,” the committee said in a statement carried by the official Middle East News Agency.

The United States has come under harsh criticism for its treatment of foreign militant suspects and the process of bringing them to trial.

U.S. AGENT?

Nour came a distant second behind incumbent President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt’s first mutli-candidate presidential elections in 2005. His supporters say the government had fabricated the case against him to make an example out of him for any potential challengers to Mubarak’s 26-year rule.

The government says the ruling was issued by the independent judiciary and had no political dimensions.

A Cairo court rejected Nour’s request for a medical release last week in a hasty session his lawyers could not attend. A separate court will review a similar request on June 12.

Ismail, also a senior leader of Nour’s liberal Ghad Party, said Bush’s statement could be counterproductive.

“When something like this comes up, the regime uses it against us, and against Nour, and I’m extremely concerned now and worried,” she said in a telephone interview.

She said state-run media could use the remarks against Nour and describe him as a “U.S. agent.”

The rise of Nour in Egyptian politics coincided with strong pressure from Washington on Egypt to allow more political participation and protect civil liberties.

That pressure allowed more political dissent and gave voice to critics of President Mubarak and his rule.

The U.S. campaign, however, lost momentum a year later when Washington turned to its Middle East allies for support against Islamists in the region and over deepening problems in Iraq.

“Bush’s statement will not lead to anything,” said political analyst Mohamed El-Sayyed Said. “Both Egypt and the United States have a wide area of agreement whereby Egypt serves the U.S. interests in the region and Washington grants Cairo political support.”

Additional reporting by Alaa Shahine

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