In a verdict that came as a slap to democracy advocates, one of Egypt's most prominent and unflinching opposition politicians was sentenced Saturday to five years in prison on charges of forgery.
The imprisonment of Ayman Nour, an outspoken former legislator who recently ran an intense election campaign against longtime President Hosni Mubarak, is widely seen as a means to silence a potential threat to the ruling regime. The verdict drew a swift and forceful rebuke from Washington.
Nour's conviction "calls into question Egypt's commitment to democracy, freedom and the rule of law," the White House said in a statement.
Nour's lawyer, Amin Salim, told reporters, "This is a political trial to destroy Ayman Nour." The verdict will be appealed, his wife and lawyers said.
Saturday's verdict was the latest blow to the foundering dream of creating a third way in Arab politics -- a progressive, democratic political movement that is neither Islamist nor a repressive autocracy. For many Egyptians, the imprisonment of the ailing Nour was a disheartening epilogue to parliamentary elections this year that placed nearly 20% of the legislative seats under the control of the Muslim Brotherhood.
"This is a very dangerous signal from the government -- that the secular opposition doesn't have the same opportunity to exist or grow as the Islamist movements," said Hafez abu Saeda, president of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. "In spite of the government talking about reform, secular leaders are in a very bad situation."
After a quarter-century in power, Mubarak opened the presidential election this year to competition from opposition candidates, including Nour. But critics have complained that the election law was tailored to ensure that nobody but Mubarak stood a chance of winning.
Still, some analysts believe that Nour, 41, posed a more serious threat to Mubarak than the more popular Islamists -- despite his comparative lack of followers. Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, Nour tapped into the same constituency that forms the backbone of Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party: secular, educated, Western-friendly, middle class. And unlike the Islamist opposition, a candidate like Nour could be taken seriously by the U.S. administration and Europe.
Nour has said that the regime views him as a threat to the political aspirations of Gamal Mubarak, the president's son and a rising star within the ruling party. As long as Hosni Mubarak can keep secular opposition tamped down, Nour reasoned, he'll be able to convince the West -- particularly the United States -- that his regime is the only viable government, and that democracy must not be rushed.
"They'll put an end to the dreams of all liberals," said Gamila Ismael, Nour's wife, standing in the courtroom a few minutes before the verdict was announced. "They will prove to the West it's either [Mubarak] or the Muslim Brotherhood."
The wooden benches of the courtroom were packed with spectators before the hearing opened -- all of them men, most of them burly and dressed in worn suits. They wouldn't say who they were or why they'd come. Nour's supporters were convinced that they were plainclothes police, and that their presence signaled that the backers' party leader would be hauled off to prison.
Looking out at the courtroom, Ismael was frantic.
"Until yesterday, he still said, 'Pray for me, don't lose patience, don't lose hope,' " she said. "I want to reach him now and tell him, 'Don't have hope, you're going to be put down heavily.' Have a look and see this reform they're talking about."
When Nour, dressed in prison whites and looking weary, filed into the defendant's cell, Ismael began to shout to her husband.
"It's not good, it's not good," she said, over and over. "Be strong."
A diabetic who needs insulin, Nour had been hospitalized in recent days after going on a hunger strike to protest his treatment in jail. He looked puffy and pale as he stood in the courtroom cage to hear the punishment read.
The White House, in its statement Saturday, said it is "disturbed by reports that Mr. Nour's health has seriously declined due to the hunger strike on which he has embarked in protest of the conditions of his trial and detention."
The United States "calls upon the Egyptian government to act under the laws of Egypt in the spirit of its professed desire for increased political openness and dialogue within Egyptian society, and out of humanitarian concern, to release Mr. Nour from detention," the statement continued.
The judge, who was flanked by security officers, has presided over other controversial cases, including the 2002 conviction of Saad Eddin Ibrahim, another secular critic of the government. That verdict was later tossed out by an appeals court.
The hearing was over in less than five minutes. Ismael leapt to her feet. "God is great!" she cried. "Down with Mubarak!"
"God is great!" Nour echoed from his cell as security officers hauled him away, out of sight.
Nour's conviction gives him a criminal record -- thereby putting him permanently out of the running for president. The Tomorrow Party has already appointed a replacement, former Egyptian diplomat Nagui Ghatrifi, to lead while Nour serves out his prison term.
"We'll stick to our program, of course," Ghatrifi said. "We don't believe in any gradual reforms. These are all lies and maneuvers. We have to address the head of the despotic regime."
In the street outside, where dozens of supporters had spent a bone-chilling night on wool blankets, a wail rose from the crowd at news of Nour's conviction. Demonstrators hurled rocks and sticks at riot police who blocked the entry to the courthouse.
"Why all these soldiers?" the crowd chanted. "Are you scared of us? Are you in a war or what?"
The crowd thickened to several hundred, and moved in an impromptu march through the streets of Cairo.
"They're a heap of rubbish, Hosni Mubarak and his regime," said Mohammed Ahmed, a 23-year-old engineering student who traveled from his home in Alexandria to show his solidarity with Nour. "As you can see, we feel burned."
Nour's case had been wending its way through the courts for nearly a year. He was abruptly stripped of parliamentary immunity in January, jailed and charged with forging signatures when he founded his party.
Nour's arrest drew the ire of the U.S. administration; he was soon freed and allowed to run against Mubarak in Egypt's first multiple-candidate presidential election. He collected half a million votes, outpacing other opposition figures.
But he has never managed to shake off his legal woes. And when it came time to run for parliament this fall, Nour lost his seat. His supporters accuse the government of rigging the vote.
"Mubarak is not sincere," said Hisham Kassem, publisher of the opposition newspaper Al Masry al Youm and a member of the Tomorrow Party. "He's happy to have a charade democracy, but if anybody challenges his power, he's terrified."