Friday, February 11, 2005
"TOMORROW" IN LIMBO
The future looks far less certain for Al-Ghad Party in light of its leader Ayman Nour's continuing detention, reports Mona El-Nahhas
"Don't allow them to destroy our dream," jailed Al-Ghad (Tomorrow) Party Chairman Ayman Nour wrote his colleagues from his Tora prison cell. "Keep on the lookout for any attempts to split the party. Stand as one, because the situation is very critical."
Nour, a prominent opposition member of parliament, was arrested on 29 January on charges of forging 1433 of his party's membership applications, which were used during the official registering of the party last October.
Al-Ghad leaders, shocked by the sudden turn of events, said the case was politically motivated. "They imprisoned him as an example of [what could happen] to any other opposing voice that dares to call for reform," said Wael Nawara, the party chairman's assistant. "The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) does not allow any other party to threaten it." Nawara said the NDP -- worried about Al-Ghad's potential to be a serious rival -- "started to fabricate a case to get rid of the party".
In an interview at Nour's Zamalek residence, the party chairman's wife, TV broadcaster Gamila Ismail, who also serves as Al-Ghad's assistant secretary-general, told Al-Ahram Weekly that Nour's case was "politically motivated", and that Nour himself was "afraid he would remain in detention until parliamentary elections take place".
Ismail said she was also worried about plans aimed at weakening and splitting the party. She said "security bodies" had made "contact with leading founders [to] convince them to run in elections for Nour's post. They also planted seeds of strife, by infiltrating the party ranks."
Party members have indeed begun to criticise the way the party's elections were staged.
"Leading posts were seized by businessmen and family acquaintances," said a party member who spoke on condition of anonymity. "People with extensive political experience were excluded."
The US's reaction to Nour's arrest has also rankled the party. The US State Department issued a statement "deploring [Nour's] arrest and calling on the government to re-examine the issue". A Washington Post editorial described him as being "the sort of future leader capable of winning broad support". According to the newspaper, it was "that, and not forgery, [which] landed him in jail".
Several leading party members reacted to the US stance by publicly voicing their rejection of any external interference in Nour's case. Forty party members from Al-Qalyubiya were provoked into submitting their resignations last Thursday. In a statement bearing their signatures, they criticised "Nour's dealings with the US at a time when he [himself] harshly criticised anyone who deals with the US".
One of the party's senior founders, Sherif Esmat Abdel-Meguid, son of the former Arab League secretary-general, also submitted his resignation.
The party's connection to the US became a hot topic of debate last December, when US ambassador to Cairo David Welch visited Nour at his residence. "As a liberal party, calling for an open relationship with the West and the US," Ismail said, "it was very natural to meet the US ambassador." She said it was Welch who asked to meet Nour to congratulate him on the formation of the party and find out more about its programme. "As a precautionary measure, Nour decided to notify Shura Council speaker Safwat El- Sherif about the Welch meeting in accordance with the political parties law," Ismail said.
Two days before his arrest, Nour met former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright. The meeting took place "at a reception to which we were invited along with several top state officials including presidential political adviser Osama El- Baz and senior NDP members. Nour talked with Albright for less than two minutes. They just shook hands," Ismail said. She said her husband's patriotism was above suspicion.
Meanwhile, the case against Nour does not look to have much legal ground on which to stand, according to Sameh Ashour, a member of Al-Ghad Party leader's defence team. "Nour does not have any legal responsibility for checking membership applications. It's not his business." The political parties law stipulates that party founders submit at least 50 membership applications to be eligible for a licence. "Why would Nour go to the trouble of forging such a huge number of applications?" Ashour asked. He said the names of the party's 2005 founders were published via paid advertising in newspapers.
Nour's arrest took place just a few hours after the People's Assembly stripped his parliamentary immunity. He was ordered on 31 January to be remanded in custody for 45 days pending investigations.
Nour sent parliamentary speaker Fathi Sorour a letter from his Tora prison cell last week complaining of having been subjected to inhumane treatment, and urging Sorour to take action. On Sunday the People's Assembly dispatched a delegation from its Human Rights Committee, headed by Mansour Amer, to examine Nour's complaint.
Following the visit, the committee recommended that Nour -- a diabetic with heart problems -- be hospitalised to get the medical care he needs. The committee's report will be submitted to the interior minister and the prosecutor-general.
The party's secretary general, Mona Makram Ebeid, is in charge until Nour's release. Ebeid attended the first session of the national dialogue with the NDP that took place two days after Nour's arrest, presenting the gathering with the party's reform plan.
Nearly three weeks before his arrest, Nour submitted a draft constitution to the People's Assembly, calling it Al-Ghad's alternative to the constitution currently in use, and simultaneously staging a campaign to get one million signatures in support of it. The draft calls for fully democratic presidential elections within a parliamentary republic, thereby curtailing the president's powers.
Although his parliamentary immunity has been revoked, Nour is still an MP. When the investigations are over, his MP status will be re- examined. Legal experts said that if he were found guilty, his membership would also be revoked upon the approval of two thirds of MPs. If he is found innocent, his immunity will be restored, and he will have the right to run in the coming parliamentary elections.
In another blow to the new party, the Shura Council-affiliated Supreme Press Council banned the party's weekly mouthpiece Al-Ghad on Tuesday just one day before it was set to appear on the newsstand.
The council's decision was based on a letter submitted by the party's Deputy Chairman Ragab Hemeida, in which he claimed that the party does not approve of Ibrahim Eissa being the mouthpiece's chief-editor.
During the party's first congress last November, Eissa was chosen as Al-Ghad 's chief-editor. Eissa was the chief- editor of Al-Destour newspaper, banned in 1998 after it published a dubious statement containing threats against three Coptic businessmen. The publication was accused of sensationalism.
High-ranking party members said that Hemeida acted against Eissa in an attempt to bolster Nour's case. These same members met on Tuesday to declare their opposition to Hemeida's stance. "We are not going to get rid of our people, even if it is in exchange for Nour's release," Ismail said. Although Hemeida was forced to withdraw his letter to the council, it remains unclear when the paper will actually appear.