Ayman Nour

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No one ever challenged an Arab autocrat in the way Ayman Nour has. The 42-year-old M.P. spent years forming the liberal al-Ghad (Tomorrow) party and planning a run against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. When Mubarak suddenly opened up the field to opposition candidates for the first time in 2005, Nour launched the most spirited presidential campaign in Egyptian history, decrying incompetence and corruption in Mubarak's regime and calling for a new democratic constitution. In the September balloting Nour wound up in second place with a respectable 7.3% of the vote. Nour's fate spotlights the huge difficulties in creating independent Arab political parties. In January 2005 just before Nour could launch his run for President in January 2005, police arrested him outside parliament and allegedly beat him up. He was charged with forging signatures in his party's registration papers but was temporarily freed to run in the election. Last December, a court convicted him and handed down a five-year prison sentence. The U.S. State Department said the trial "failed to meet basic international standards." Visitors say Nour today seems alternately hopeful and demoralized. In comments sent to Time last week, he described his experience in prison as "the worst days of my life." Nour's legal troubles have led to disarray in al-Ghad. Independent Arab parties still need to connect with voters. "Liberal discourse hasn't been able to resonate here," says political scientist Samer Shehata. "If Nour had five years to develop a political message, he'd be much more popular than he is now." But if the regime has its way, Nour will spend that time in jail.