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Democracy on the Nile

The story of Ayman Nour and Egypt's problematic attempt at free elections.

3:00 PM, Mar 27, 2006 • By ABIGAIL LAVIN
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A HANDFUL OF PROTESTORS gathered outside the White House over the weekend to advocate for the release of jailed Egyptian politician Ayman Nour. The small group of protestors hold signs and chanted, "Stop supporting Mubarak! Stop funding dictators! Free Ayman Nour!"

The protest group was comprised largely of Dr. Ahmed Mansour and his family members. Mansour, an Egyptian intellectual and a colleague of Nour, was imprisoned repeatedly in Egypt before seeking political asylum in the United States in 2002. Mansour is one of a growing group of Egyptian scholars, politicians, and journalists--typified by Ayman Nour--imprisoned for criticizing the regime and calling for reform.

WHO IS AYMAN NOUR? The Egyptian government would have you believe that he is a criminal who forged hundreds of signatures in order to gain an official license for his liberal, secular el-Ghad party. His supporters maintain that Nour is a charismatic politician who was conveniently placed in prison during the year of Egypt's first multi-candidate elections in order to ensure President Hosni Mubarak's continued place in office.

In October, 2004, before any charges were brought against Nour, he was serving as a member of the Egyptian parliament and was elected president of the El-Ghad (Tomorrow) party, which had recently secured official recognition. The party championed women's rights, a free market economy, and reforms to the Egyptian constitution. As president of el-Ghad, Nour called for limits on the president's power, and a maximum of two terms in office.

This was something of an affront to Mubarak, who has served as Egypt's president for 25 years. Up until the 2005 elections, Mubarak had remained in power through rubberstamp referendums held quietly in his office every five years. Nour's wife, Gamila Ismail, jokingly refers to the Mubarak regime as the "Democracy of Alzheimer."

THOUGH NOUR WAS SENTENCED to five years in prison in December 2005, his legal battles began almost a year earlier. On a Saturday morning in January 2005, the People's Assembly of the Egyptian parliament met and decided that Nour should be stripped of his parliamentary immunity. Nour heard about the meeting half an hour before it began. Rushing to parliament, he found the meeting coming to a close and police officers waiting to arrest him on charges of forgery. He remained in prison for 45 days, during which Mubarak announced that the country's first democratic elections would be held that autumn.

Upon his release, Nour campaigned vigorously. With nine candidates running against Mubarak, Nour finished second in the 2005 race. Government figures put his share of the vote at 7 percent, while independent estimates pegged it closer to 13 percent. The elections were not perfect. In addition to Nour's questionable arrest, more then 10 people were killed in election-related violence and it was widely reported that government security forces kept some Egyptians from casting their ballots.

NOUR'S ARREST came at an advantageous moment for the Mubarak regime. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher noted that the timing was "incongruous." In Egypt's parliamentary elections, every single el-Ghad candidate lost. Nour contends that this was due to deliberate action on the part of Mubarak's National Democratic Party, that "a decision was taken at the highest level that Ghad would not win a single seat."

In the months leading up to the election, Nour had the double duty of campaigning and being put on trial. Nour said that he did not know several of his co-defendants, men who allegedly helped him forge the signatures in el-Ghad's party petition. Early sessions of the trial were held in a small courtroom where security officers occupied most seats, preventing journalists from attending.

Judge Adel Abdel Salam Gom'a, who presided over the trial, is referred to as "the regime's judge" by local human rights activists. Gom'a refused most of the defense's requests for access to documents--even including copies of the allegedly forged signatures.

One of the accused, Ayman Isma'il Hassan, retracted his confession during the trial, saying that security forces had coerced him. Judge Gom'a initially refused to allow the retraction to be put on the record. After repeated requests, Gom'a allowed the retraction to be put on the record, but rejected Hassan's request for government protection, saying that anything that happened outside of the courtroom was not his responsibility. Joseph Stork, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East division, called the trial "a terrible advertisement for President Mubarak's supposed reform agenda, and for Egypt's judiciary."