Thursday, December 29, 2005

Dissident Watch: Ayman Nour

Middle East Forum

by Suzanne Gershowitz
Middle East Quarterly
Summer 2005, p. 96

On January 29, 2005, just a day before Iraq's first free elections in a half-century, the Egyptian government moved to shut down its own fledgling opposition, arresting 40-year-old Ayman Nour, chairman of the upstart Ghad (Tomorrow) party.

In Egypt, the government licenses political parties, a power it has used to constrain opposition. Nour, a lawyer who entered the Majlis ash-Sha'b (People's Assembly) in 1994, broke with the establishment nationalist Wafd Party in 2000, disillusioned with the lack of liberal reform. The same year, he published a book advocating liberalism over Islamist politics, Yawmiyat Suhufi Mushaghib (The Memoir of a Troublemaking Journalist),[1] and began efforts to form his own liberal party. After more than three years of bureaucratic hold-up, the Egyptian government formally recognized Ghad as Egypt's first new opposition party in more than a half-century.[2] On paper, Ghad's influence is slight. It has only six deputies in Egypt's 454-seat assembly while Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party has 415.

But unlike other Egyptian parliamentarians, Nour used his People's Assembly seat to agitate for concrete reforms. Three weeks prior to his arrest, he antagonized the Egyptian government by submitting a draft constitution mandating contested elections rather than a simple referendum on the incumbent's rule.[3] As a result, Nour's popularity has been on an upswing. One Egyptian analyst predicted he could win 20 to 30 percent of the vote.[4]

Mubarak, 76, retaliated with charges many Egyptians considered spurious. He accused Nour of forging signatures he collected in order to establish the party, a charge Nour rejects. Upon arrest, security forces kept him in a room less than 12 square feet at Nora prison.[5]

Rather than ignore the domestic abuses of an important ally, the State Department stood up for the dissident. On January 31, a State Department spokesman called on the Egyptian government to reconsider Nour's arrest.[6] During Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Abdul-Gheit's February 15, 2005 visit to Washington, the question of political reform in Egypt "reared its head … everywhere,"[7] according to a report in Al-Ahram. Displaying her displeasure at Nour's treatment, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cancelled a visit to Egypt.[8]

It worked. On February 26, Mubarak announced plans to allow opposition candidates to contest presidential elections and, on March 12, he released Nour from prison.

It is too soon to tell whether Mubarak's concessions are sincere. He has not agreed to legalize all political parties or to allow international electoral monitoring.[9] His foreign minister has ridiculed U.S. support of democracy in Egypt.[10] While Nour has declared his intention to run, he still faces trial on June 28, and Mubarak's National Democratic Party seems intent on sabotaging his campaign.[11] There is no guarantee that Egyptian authorities will allow him to appear on the ballot. Nevertheless, Washington does have leverage; at $1.8 billion, Egypt is the third largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid after Iraq and Israel.[12]

Suzanne Gershowitz is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.

[1] Cairo: Dar al-Hurriya, 2000. See also The Washington Post, Mar. 12, 2005.
[2] Ayman Nour, "Letter From Prison: 'Did I Take Democracy Too Seriously,'" Newsweek, Mar. 14, 2005.
[3] Al-Ahram Weekly (Cairo), Feb. 17-23, 2005.
[4] The Washington Post, Mar. 12, 2005.
[5] Nour, "Letter From Prison."
[6] U.S. Department of State, news briefing, Jan. 31, 2005.
[7] Al-Ahram Weekly, Feb. 17-23, 2005.
[8] The New York Times, Feb. 26, 2005.
[9] The Washington Post, Mar. 15, 2005.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Al-Ahram Weekly, Mar. 31-Apr. 6, 2005.
[12] Curt Tarnoff and Larry Nowels, "Summary," Foreign Aid: An Introductory Overview of U.S. Programs and Policy, Congressional Research Service, Apr. 15, 2004.

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