The Bumpy Road of Reform for Egypt

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After his sentencing, Ayman Nour shouts to supporters through the bars of the defendant's dock, before being forcibly removed by police

Ayman Nour earned a place in Egyptian history in September by emerging as the strongest challenger to incumbent Hosni Mubarak in the country’s first-ever presidential contest. The 42-year-old lawyer’s populist performance made him a future star of Egyptian politics, the leader of a potentially influential liberal bloc in parliament and a serious contender to succeed Mubarak in the next election in 2011. To U.S. officials pushing democracy in the Middle East as well as to many Egyptians demanding change, Nour and his Al Ghad (Tomorrow) party offered a promising liberal, secular alternative to authoritarian Arab rulers and their Islamic fundamentalist opponents.

But Nour’s political career is now in ruins after having dared challenge a regime that is apparently determined to perpetuate itself in power. Last week, Nour was convicted on charges of forging signatures in establishing his party in 2004. The allegations surfaced soon after Nour founded his party calling for democracy and slamming Mubarak as a dictator. He had to run his presidential campaign beneath the cloud of the forgery allegations and then in elections last month lost his parliamentary seat amid widespread allegations of voter intimidation. To seal his fate, a state security court sentenced Nour to five years in prison last week and had him hauled off to begin serving his time. Even if Nour is exonerated on appeal, his lack of a parliamentary seat removes him from eligibility to run for president again in six years.

Nour’s troubles fit a longstanding pattern of government intimidation against democratic alternatives that might appeal to many Egyptians fed up with autocracy as well as to Western governments that have otherwise long done business with Mubarak’s regime. In 2000, veteran Egyptian democracy activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim was jailed on charges of accepting and misusing funds from foreign sources to support his research and monitoring work. Like Ibrahim, whose conviction was later overturned—after some pressuring from the U.S.—Nour was vilified in Egypt’s influential state-run media. Again, the U.S. is demanding that Nour be released. But the Egyptian government says that the arrest is in no way politically motivated.

Mubarak’s regime appears to be intent upon neutralizing reformers like Nour to ensure that his ruling party remains the country’s only viable force for achieving development and stability. To strengthen his position, Mubarak has adopted reform as his own agenda and promised change from within. Another part of Mubarak’s strategy seems to be to show that it is Muslim fundamentalists who pose the real challenge, and that his steady regime alone can prevent them from taking over and imposing an Islamic state.

That seemed to be the intended message in November’s parliamentary poll. As the liberal Nour was suffering his defeat, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, a party that seeks to reestablish an Islamic caliphate, was given unprecedented leeway by the regime to field its candidates. It captured nearly 20 percent of the seats, a sixfold improvement on its previous best showing, making the fundamentalists the largest opposition force in parliament. Egypt’s future has thus become a polarizing struggle between Mubarak and Islam, a contest that liberals, with Nour in jail rather than in parliament, have little hope of winning.