CAIRO -- Ayman Nour, the liberal Egyptian opposition politician whose jailing early this year has made him the leading challenger to President Hosni Mubarak, recently tried to launch his campaign for September's presidential election by knocking on doors. Police stopped him, telling him he didn't have permission. He tried to stage a conference for 1,500 of his supporters. A fire set by pro-government thugs forced the temporary clearing of the hall. When that failed to stop the meeting, the electricity was cut off.
It gets worse. Nour says he has been served with a court order mandating demolition of a community center he has maintained in the Cairo neighborhood of Bab al Shariya, his political base. Pro-government newspapers have reported that his penthouse apartment also will be demolished. One weekly paper that recently began appearing alongside Nour's party organ at newsstands published an article detailing how the 40-year-old parliamentarian might be assassinated: A sniper, it predicted, would open fire on his car.
Then there is the continuing criminal case, which almost everyone outside Mubarak's government, and some inside it, regards as blatantly political. A trial date has been set for June 28, and Nour says the case has been assigned to a notorious Egyptian security court judge. That judge is known for his closeness to Mubarak and for the seven-year sentence he imposed four years ago on another liberal dissident, Saad Eddin Ibrahim. "I lie in bed at night thinking that either I'm going to end up in jail or I'm going to be killed," a visibly anxious Nour told me last week. "To say the least, this campaign has gotten off to a very bad start."
If so, the prospect is bad not just for Nour but for Mubarak, who effectively has staked his legacy and the future of the regime he leads on his promise to replace the rigged referendum that has previously extended his rule with a multi-candidate democratic election. There's little doubt the 76-year-old Mubarak will win the election, in part because it will exclude unsanctioned political parties--including the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's powerful Islamic movement. But a free and fair election within those limits--with access to the media and full freedom to campaign for Nour and the two or three other candidates who might challenge Mubarak--would be seen by most Egyptians and many outsiders, including the Bush administration, as a political breakthrough.
On the other hand, an electoral farce featuring the persecution or jailing of Nour and the ballot-box stuffing widely reported in previous Egyptian elections would eliminate the possibility that Egypt, like Mexico or South Korea, will be led to democracy by its ruling party. It could also scatter the group of young technocrats who, under Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, have embarked on an aggressive effort to liberalize the economy and modernize the regime. The prosecution of Nour, one told me, is intended "to stop the reforms." Nazif, whose tax and tariff cutting and privatization of state companies have prompted a 130 percent gain in the Cairo stock market since last summer, insists the government is committed to real change. "We led peace. We can lead political reform," he said, echoing the phrase President Bush has used for Egypt. He added: "We don't have any differences" with Washington "on where we want to be. We might have some differences on the tactics and the pace." A senior Egyptian security official I spoke to was more circumspect, but also adamant. "This won't be the Tunisian model," he said, referring to the farcical multi-candidate election staged by strongman Zine Abidine Ben Ali last year. "It will be fair, it will be open and it will be under the eyes of everyone in our society."
The real meaning of these pledges is now being hammered out in official committees that are drafting the constitutional amendment providing for presidential elections, the law that will govern this year's campaign and the ruling party's platform. Regime liberals are pressing for a month-long window in which opposition candidates will each get two hours a week on state television; a suspension of emergency regulations that now bar them from holding public rallies and demonstrations; public financing for their campaigns; a nonpartisan authority to manage the election and, crucially, international observers to guarantee that the balloting will be fair and the count honest. Intriguingly, the national judges' union recently declared that its members will not supervise polling places, as had been expected, unless Mubarak accepts reform legislation making the judiciary more independent.
Yet the liberals concede that even if they win all their battles, they have no control over the prosecution of Nour, which is in the hands of Mubarak and his security apparatus. Nazif said the case could be wrapped up in June, allowing Nour to campaign freely if he is acquitted. But the security official I spoke to said the case would be extended, after a preliminary session, until October--meaning that Nour will run with the prospect of being sentenced to a prison term after Mubarak is safely reelected.
"This is a battle about the future," Nour said. "They want to convict me, even if only for a day, so that I can't run for president or parliament again." That would help clear the path for Mubarak's son Gamal, who, like Nour, is in his forties. It would also propel Egypt toward the very political turmoil and international isolation that Mubarak seeks to avoid.