Saturday, March 12, 2005

The Washington Post : Egypt Holds Candidate Despite Vow Of Reform

Egypt Holds Candidate Despite Vow Of Reform

By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 12, 2005; Page A01

CAIRO, March 11 -- Two weeks after President Hosni Mubarak announced that Egypt would hold multi-candidate presidential elections, the first politician to say he would run was sitting in jail.

Inmate No. 1387 at Tora jail is Ayman Nour, a lawyer and member of parliament. His normal residence is a penthouse apartment decorated with bronze French Empire-style knickknacks, gigantic gilt mirrors and a plaster image of Marilyn Monroe with her skirt blowing upward.

Ayman Nour, right, a candidate for president of Egypt, is surrounded by police at a court appearance in late January. (Nasser Nouri -- AP)

Nour, whose small Tomorrow Party was legalized in October and holds six seats in Egypt's 454-member parliament, is only one of thousands of Egyptian political figures jailed during decades of authoritarian rule. Yet since his arrest Jan. 29 on suspicion of forging official documents, his fate has become intertwined with the destiny of political change in Egypt.

State Department and European Union officials, all pressing for democratic reform, have complained about his detention. Pro-government reformists who dispute Nour on the details and pace of change nonetheless express concern that his internment will discredit their own efforts. Government officials reject complaints that Nour is being persecuted and insist that his case is a domestic legal question and not the business of outsiders. And the people of Cairo, legendarily indifferent to politics, are debating the justice of his case.

The extent of Nour's popularity is difficult to gauge -- there have been no polls on prospective presidential candidates. Mustafa Kamel Sayed, a political science professor at Cairo University, said recently that Nour might be able to win 20 or even 30 percent of the vote in a race against Mubarak.

Regardless, his arrest exposes the uncertainty of a government that feels itself under siege, observers say. The Bush administration has singled out Egypt as overripe for reform. Political demonstrators are becoming increasingly loud and anti-Mubarak, even though they are still far outnumbered by phalanxes of police officers. The government appears reluctant to risk letting an independent politician run free.

"Fear makes for political mistakes. Everything is up in the air, and you will find cases like Nour's," said Hala Mustafa, editor in chief of the al-Ahram Democracy Review, part of a government-backed reform research group. She declined to comment on the merits of Nour's case.

Aida Seif Dawla, a longtime left-wing activist and human rights campaigner, said it was "an extremely weak moment for the government. It's not just Nour. Far from it. They pick up people handing out leaflets at the book fair. The government wants to give the appearance of making a new start, but it's not going to take any risks."

At first blush, Nour seems an unlikely political martyr. He campaigned for competitive presidential elections, but he is far from a revolutionary. In an interview two days before his arrest, he predicted that whatever the conditions, this year's election would simply extend Mubarak's 24-year reign for another six years. In October, he told a reporter, "We love and appreciate President Mubarak, but we love this nation as well and would like to develop it like other countries."

Said Gamila Ismail, Nour's wife and political aide: "Ayman was the most surprised of all about his arrest. He never gave it a second thought."

Nour had taken positions recently, however, that were daring by the standards of Egyptian political discourse. On the eve of a meeting between Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party and opposition groups, he sent a letter demanding that Mubarak attend the conference; otherwise, Nour said he would not. This assertion of equality irritated the president, party insiders said. Nour was jailed three days before the conference opened.

Nour's associates say he also had told them that he thought Mubarak's wife, Suzanne, was pressing her husband to arrange for their son Gamal to succeed him.

That kind of talk is risky, despite an easing of repression that has brought life to a political scene still restricted by quarter-century-old emergency laws. Security agents telephone foreign correspondents' Egyptian assistants to ask whom they are talking to and about what. This week, when the Tomorrow Party issued the first edition of its newspaper -- in which Nour announced his candidacy -- police held up distribution for a day to review the articles.

"Nour's problem is that he has been acting in excess of his real political influence," said Ali Abdel Fattah, an official of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood, an Islamic-based organization once associated with violence in Egypt, is banned from politics but is regarded as the country's biggest opposition force.

On the morning of Jan. 29, Nour received notification that his immunity from prosecution as a member of parliament was being lifted. He rushed to the People's Assembly building and was told that police were investigating forgeries among documents he submitted last year to the government in his bid to have his party legalized. When legislators -- 85 percent of whom belong to Mubarak's party -- voted to expose Nour to prosecution, he responded heatedly: "I put myself in the hands of God and the Egyptian people. All know I am innocent." He turned to the head of parliament and labeled him "unjust." The legislature later struck the words from the record.

A few minutes after his arrest, police searched his apartment, while his wife and two children were present. The 15 agents went through computer disks, inspected his medicine cabinet and even took samples of pipe tobacco, Ismail said

Prosecutors and a court have until Tuesday to decide whether to press charges or release him. Late Thursday, prosecutors announced the release of one of Nour's associates, Ayman Barakat, who also was detained on forgery charges.

In effect, the stage is set for a test of Egypt's reform efforts and its relations with the United States, which provides the country $2 billion in annual aid. On Jan. 31, State Department spokesman Richard A. Boucher said, "The arrest, in our minds, raises questions about the outlook for democratic process in Egypt." Two weeks later, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice told Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit about the Bush administration's "strong concerns."

Although Egyptian officials are reluctant to publicly comment on the case, they insist that the allegations are valid. "The issue of Ayman Nour is an issue related to criminal accusations," Aboul Gheit said in an interview. "There are no political considerations. It remains with the attorney general to decide, without interference of outside powers."

The case hinges on the activities of a Tomorrow Party member who told police he forged numerous documents with signatures of people purporting to back the party's legalization bid -- all at Nour's request. Only 50 such papers are needed, but Nour provided more than 2,000. Prosecutors contend that more than 1,000 were forgeries.

Nour's attorney, Amir Salem, a human rights activist who has been jailed nine times, said Nour forged no documents and the informer was a plant. "I've never seen a frame-up prepared like this," he said.

Nour, 40, has been involved in politics since high school. His father was a pioneer member of the Wafd Party, a group that dates from the 1920s. "I remember seeing him 21 years ago get out of his late-model Mercedes and go right into student meetings to play politics," Mazen Mustafa, a Tomorrow Party member, said of the younger Nour. "He was different from others. He liked to let others speak."

Fifteen years ago, Nour published a book presenting liberalism as an alternative to Islamic politics. In 1994, he won a seat in parliament representing Cairo's Bab ash-Shariya district, a teeming neighborhood of butchers and farm supply shops. He broke with Wafd five years ago because he came to believe the party was too tame, ran again in Bab ash-Shariya and won. "He is ambitious, that is for sure," said Wael Nawara, another Tomorrow member.

In parliament, Nour carried out investigations of everything from bread prices to torture, endearing himself to his impoverished constituency, supporters say. He operated a charity office and community center in Bab ash-Shariya that provided medical advice, a hall for free weddings and school lessons for children.

On Wednesday, at a teahouse in Bab ash-Shariya, a laborer said Nour was guilty only of "trying to be president and be democratic. . . . He cares about this area. He paved sidewalks and planted trees."

A critic arrived and began to sing the praises of Mubarak: "He should stay in office forever. Ayman Nour must have done something wrong or he wouldn't be in jail."

"This is democracy?" countered the laborer. "Anyone who speaks up can end up in the same trouble."

That night, Nour's supporters held a candlelight vigil to demand his release. About 50 demonstrators and at least three times as many police officers showed up.

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