Egypt’s leading dissident, his forehead singed from a recent attack, sits near a window in an armchair, depressed and wondering whether he was better off behind bars.
“I want to go back to jail,” says Ayman Nour, whom the government released in February as an apparent goodwill gesture to the Obama administration. “The government insists on getting the maximum benefit out of my liberation, but they are causing me the maximum harm.
“I am denied all rights. My party cannot return to the political scene. I am stalked by the police. They are even messing with my personal life. There is no ceiling to the injustice and the revenge of this regime.”
When President Obama steps to the podium Thursday in Cairo, in what is expected to be a major address to the Muslim world, many will be listening for an initiative to end the Arab-Israeli conflict. But others, like Nour and Egyptian activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, will be looking for an aggressive approach to advance human rights.
Nour, who was imprisoned after the 2005 election in which he ran against President Hosni Mubarak, is the country’s most prominent opposition figure. But Mubarak’s 27-year rule has seen thousands of other activists, bloggers and members of the radical Muslim Brotherhood locked up on what human rights groups say are scurrilous charges to prevent any challenge to the ruling National Democratic Party.
The question now is: How will Obama, whose charisma and speeches have entranced the Arab world, balance the United States’ national interests with its calls for increased democracy in the Middle East? For decades, those matters have been at cross purposes, especially in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, two strategic U.S. allies whose regimes have stifled democratic ideals.
In Egypt, activists say the $1.2 billion in annual U.S. aid, most of it military, should be contingent on the Mubarak government granting wider political freedoms. Ibrahim, who has been in self-exile in the United States, had argued this point and was sentenced to two years in prison on charges of damaging Egypt’s reputation -- a verdict that was overturned Monday in what is seen as another offering to Washington.
“Obama is the most respected American president outside the U.S. in almost a century,” Nour says. “He is different. He has a different skin and comes from a different culture. The Arab person finds him an inspiring model and hopes someone like him can reach power here the same way Obama did. . . . But so far, we can say that Obama has a confusing agenda as far as democracy in this region is concerned. If he gives up democratization, his work will be meaningless.”
Obama has spoken of political freedoms, but Nour and others say he has yet to articulate how the U.S. will press Middle East regimes to loosen restrictions. Nour witnessed firsthand the targeting of political opponents when he was convicted in 2005 on a charge of forging signatures to bolster his Tomorrow Party.
The charge was widely criticized as a ruse to silence a voice that had gained support among the young and educated. Months before his release from Tora Prison, Nour wrote to an Illinois senator running for president. Obama’s campaign for the White House, he wrote, “embodies the dreams of Arab reformers for democracy and change.”
Nour, a lawyer whose Cairo flat resembles a French salon, is now awaiting an invitation to meet Obama. None has been forthcoming, and Nour is dispirited, but pragmatic enough to understand the calibration of politics when a U.S. president visits. What will be spoken of directly? What will be alluded to? A handshake from Obama would help Nour bring together Egypt’s fractious opposition voices, but would it anger Mubarak?
Washington needs Egypt’s help in resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and keeping Iran from expanding its regional influence. Nour wonders if these larger regional issues are why Obama chose Cairo for his speech to the Muslim world.
“We are worried that this selection could be a form of endorsement of the Egyptian regime and its repressive practices,” he says. He adds that perhaps the Mubarak government “has reached some agreement with the new U.S. administration in which the U.S. gives up some of its values in return for the protection of some of its interests.”
These days Nour has the aura of a man outflanked. He’s says he’ll run for president in 2011, even though the state has forbidden his candidacy. His party is divided and, although many Egyptians are unhappy with the nation’s course, they are unable to alter what they have lived with for so long.
The country seems to have come to accept rigged elections and disappearing ballot boxes.
“Egyptians dream of change, and my name has been associated with this dream,” says Nour, who has heart and eye ailments. “After I had been released, I noticed that people are eager for change. They don’t necessarily love me but they want a change to get rid of a regime that has become a nightmare.”
Last week, Nour, whose closet of suits is as suave as his rhetoric, was riding in a car to a party meeting when a motorcycle pulled alongside. A man shot a stream of fire at him and sped away. Nour’s forehead, hair and clothes were slightly burned. He allows interviews, but no pictures. He says he is embarrassed. He asks a visitor how he looks.
He blames the regime or its cronies, but no one can really know. No arrests have been made.
El-Hennawy is a news assistant in The Times’ Cairo Bureau.