The Pharaoh and the Rebel

Egypt's presidential elections last September were supposed to be the highlight of the Bush administration's campaign to promote democracy in the Middle East. Instead, they've become an embarrassing acknowledgement of its failure. The electoral process started out on a hopeful note. President Hosni Mubarak had never allowed his quarter-century rule to be challenged at the polls; in previous votes, he had been the only candidate in a yes/no referendum. In 2005, Mubarak decided opposition groups would be permitted to run in parliamentary elections. Meanwhile, opposition newspapers were allowed to publish, allowing some alternative to Egypt's state-controlled print and electronic media. No one ever thought Mubarak or his National Democratic Party (NDP) would let the reforms go so far that he'd lose his grip on power. But even the Bush administration has been chagrined at the lengths to which the regime has gone to destroy its opponents while pretending to let democracy take its course. Those measures have been especially extreme in the case of the country's leading opposition candidate, Ayman Nour, who heads the Ghad (or Tomorrow) Party. A baby-faced lawyer 30 years Mubarak's junior, Nour, 41, had limited funding but a flair for the dramatic: during one of the periodic bread shortages in Cairo, he got up in parliament and dared the prime minister to eat a slice of the rock-hard stuff the government was distributing to the needy. (The offer was declined.) At other times, Nour belittled Mubarak as an impotent old man afraid of his own people because the president made his campaign visits by helicopter instead of the traditional bus. Then came the crackdown. In January 2005, authorities trumped up forgery charges against Nour based on the petitions he filed to place his name on the presidential ballot. He was even accused of forging his own name. Officials stripped him of parliamentary immunity in the middle of the night, arrested him on the steps of the Assembly and dragged him down to Cairo's Tahrir Square, the country's most public place. There policemen kept him kneeling with boots on his neck while they waited an hour for the prison van to arrive, a public humiliation. He was in jail for six weeks. But then U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delayed an official visit to Egypt in protest and later sent a deputy to visit Nour. Former U.S. secretary of State Madeline Albright came to Cairo and had dinner with him The international furor led to his release and helped buoy his public support. In the September presidential elections, Nour came in second in a crowded field. And though his vote total of 7.6 percent was far behind Mubarak's 88.6 percent, it was a wake-up call to the regime. "I dared to challenge the pharoah,"he said. "And the pharaohs used to kill all the possible male heirs except their own. Mubarak wants to hand Egypt over to his own son, Gamal, and Gamal could never beat me in a free election." Gamal, 41, may well never have to face Nour . Since Nour's quixotic presidential campaign, the Mubarak machine has gone into overdrive to destroy him--politically, personally and professionally, according to both critics and supporters of the opposition leader. After the vote, Nour was charged with forgery again, as well as a host of bribery, corruption and other charges, including insulting the president. On Dec. 24 Nour was convicted and sentenced to five years' hard labor. In the runup to the trial, the government took on Nour's entire family. Attacks in the state-controlled press against Nour's father were so vituperative that Nour claims they led to his father's death. There were published accusations that his father had falsified his son's birth certificates to hide an illegitimate birth--an incendiary claim in Egypt's conservative Islamic society. "Then he was watching TV,"an Egyptian channel controlled by the state, "when there was a crawl on the screen saying I was being charged with bribery, and he had a stroke,"says Nour. "It was all too much." The media also published scandalous reports about Nour's wife, Gameela Ismail, who is now a key adviser in his Ghad Party and his chief spokeswoman. (Ismail had worked as a special correspondent for NEWSWEEK but went on leave when she began working for her husband and his party.) Her unlisted number would ring after midnight when Nour was out. "If you don't shut up, there will be no mother or father,"said the callers. Their two sons were part of an amateur teenage rock band, but it suddenly found performances canceled, with some press critics describing their music as "satanic." Police raided Nour's home and his law office, taking his Rolodex. Soon, his clients began firing him and canceling contracts, saying they'd been contacted by anonymous callers who warned them of retribution if they did not do so. City authorities even cited him for the swimming pool he'd had for years on the rooftop terrace of his apartment in the fashionable Zamalek quarter of Cairo. In the weeks before his trial, Nour and Ismail received a series of anonymous packages with threatening notes, some containing embarrassing audiotapes and doctored photographs. Nour and his wife become visibly agitated discussing the crude blackmail. "It's a dirty, disgusting thing,"says Nour. "He [Mubarak] is so ruthless and heartless, the regime has no limits on what it'll do." In an interview last month, Nour was determined not to let the persecution drive him from politics. "The Ghad Party is my last hope."As for the effect on his family: "I fear what they may do to my sons, but I'm more afraid of my sons living in a country with no freedom." In November and December, during a series of parliamentary elections, Nour lost his seat to Yeyha Wahdan, a colonel in the secret police, who resigned from his job just three months before the election. (He couldn't be reached for comment, but his brother, Sobhi, confirmed his brother's previous job and said their father had represented that district for 25 years prior to Nour.) "Despite that, we can't spend as much money as Ayman [Nour] did in this campaign because the source of his money is not known, said Sobhi, who also labeled Nour "a forger, a thief and a fraud"and added, "His whole life is a forgery." In the first two rounds of the parliamentary elections, another opposition party, the Muslim Brotherhood, won 79 out of a total of 454 parliamentary seats, despite what international monitors considered widespread voting fraud by the ruling party. Egyptian authorities became concerned, and police physically barricaded polling places throughout the country and in some places attacked voters. In the violence that ensued, most of it blamed on police, several people died. By the third round of elections, not a single additional Muslim Brotherhood candidate won, although the Islamic party did gain nine more seats in runoff elections in December. Nour's Ghad Party carried only one seat, half a dozen less than in the previous Parliament. By now, American officials have turned critical. "Clearly, these actions send the wrong signal about Egypt's commitment to democracy and freedom,"says a State Department spokesman. Nour's lawyers expect Egypt's relatively independent high court will eventually free him on appeal, but that may take two years. In the meantime, because he suffers from diabetes and has a heart condition, Nour, who is reportedly weakened after a two-week hunger strike to protest the trial, will likely be assigned to cleaning toilets and waiting on other inmates--mostly hardened common criminals. But the Mubarak regime isn't stopping there; it's also trying to take over his Ghad Party, launching another party with the same name and publishing an identically titled party newspaper. The big difference: this ersatz Ghad Party is rabidly pro-Mubarak. It's leader, Musa Mustafa, is suing to have himself declared the head of the party in Nour's place, effectively sinking his opposition movement; a ruling is expected Jan. 4, and Egypt's lower courts are unlikely to rule against the regime. As things now stand, even if Nour is released from prison and gets his party back, there's little chance he could be a candidate in the next presidential election in 2011 unless the country's constitution is changed. None of the opposition parties has the 5 percent of parliamentary seats needed before a party may field a presidential candidate. That would leave the contenders as two: Mubarak, if he chooses to go for a sixth term, or his son, Gamal, now head of the NDP's policy committee in charge of electoral reforms and widely seen as his father's heir apparent. "They're not content for the machine to roll over you and knock you down,"says Ismail, Nour's wife. "They have to crush you and ground your bones into the dirt. Like the pharaohs did."