Ayman Nour was freed from prison early this year in a gesture to the U.S., but he fears that Washington, which needs Egypt's help in the region, won't push for democratic reforms.
CAIRO — Egypt's leading dissident, his forehead singed from a recent attack, sits near a window in an armchair, depressed and wondering whether he was better off behind bars.
"I want to go back to jail," says Ayman Nour, whom the government released in February as an apparent goodwill gesture to the Obama administration. "The government insists on getting the maximum benefit out of my liberation, but they are causing me the maximum harm.
"I am denied all rights. My party cannot return to the political scene. I am stalked by the police. They are even messing with my personal life. There is no ceiling to the injustice and the revenge of this regime."
When President Obama steps to the podium Thursday in Cairo, in what is expected to be a major address to the Muslim world, many will be listening for an initiative to end the Arab-Israeli conflict. But others, like Nour and Egyptian activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, will be looking for an aggressive approach to advance human rights.
Nour, who was imprisoned after the 2005 election in which he ran against President Hosni Mubarak, is the country's most prominent opposition figure. But Mubarak's 27-year rule has seen thousands of other activists, bloggers and members of the radical Muslim Brotherhood locked up on what human rights groups say are scurrilous charges to prevent any challenge to the ruling National Democratic Party.
The question now is: How will Obama, whose charisma and speeches have entranced the Arab world, balance the United States' national interests with its calls for increased democracy in the Middle East? For decades, those matters have been at cross purposes, especially in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, two strategic U.S. allies whose regimes have stifled democratic ideals.
In Egypt, activists say the $1.2 billion in annual U.S. aid, most of it military, should be contingent on the Mubarak government granting wider political freedoms. Ibrahim, who has been in self-exile in the United States, had argued this point and was sentenced to two years in prison on charges of damaging Egypt's reputation -- a verdict that was overturned Monday in what is seen as another offering to Washington.
"Obama is the most respected American president outside the U.S. in almost a century," Nour says. "He is different. He has a different skin and comes from a different culture. The Arab person finds him an inspiring model and hopes someone like him can reach power here the same way Obama did. . . . But so far, we can say that Obama has a confusing agenda as far as democracy in this region is concerned. If he gives up democratization, his work will be meaningless."