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CAIROOne night last week, on the ground floor of a cavernous community center in the working-class neighborhood of Bab Al-Sha'araya, an Egyptian opposition politician named Ayman Nour stood on a stage in front of his constituents, his wife, and an American visitor, and held up a slim tangerine-colored pamphlet he hopes will refresh the political life of his country.
Kareem Fahim is on assigment for the Voice in the Middle East. Read his blog for dispatches, observations, and other reports from his travels.
The 48-page booklet is a stab at a new constitution for Egypt. Its preamble, which opens with the phrase "We the Egyptian people," is a broad attack on Egypt's current political order, calling for an end to fear and despotism.
"We are owners of this nation, and partners in it, not day laborers," it reads. "Citizens, and not subjects."
Nour is just 39 years old, a two-term parliament member and the head of a nascent political party called the Hizb Al-Ghad, or the Party of Tomorrow. He is a divisive figure here, called a publicity-seeking opportunist by some, by others a politician who has shrewdly taken the Egyptian pulse. He and his confederates in Tomorrow are currently waging a battle to gain official sanction for their movement, but a board that approves Egyptian political parties has denied four of their applications so far.
On Sunday, an Egyptian court postponed until November a response to Nour's request that it overrule the powerful Parties Committee, which is headed by a member of the ruling party.
Tomorrow's struggles are being fought against a backdrop of political upheaval in Egypt. A political loosening that began in the late 1990s intensified after George W. Bush's call for democracy in the Middle East, and the war in Iraq. President Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled the country since his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, was assassinated in 1981, has said that reform is a priority for the country. But a conference held here last week by Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) tacked sharply toward new economic measures, and unveiled no bold political ones.
The NDP invited a number of foreign observers to the conference, which was seen as a nod to the new openness. One American observer called the proposed political reforms "less than cosmetic."
Opposition figures like Nour have said that reform talk by Mubarak's government is meaningless without a change to the country's constitution, which they claim consolidates power in the hands of the president and the members of his NDP. The debate is sure to intensify in the run-up to next year's presidential election, which would be the fifth for the 76-year-old president, if he decides to take part. If he doesn't, there is speculation he will choose Gamal Mubarak, his 40-year-old son, to run instead.
The government's opponents are further hobbled by the perception that they have little public support. The exception is the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, which officially is banned, but in practice is tolerated. The situation has given rise to the barbed conundrum that Mubarak's government refers to every time the pressure to democratize cranks too high: Free and fair elections in Egypt would probably mean victories for a raft of Islamist candidates.
A senior State Department official told the Voice in August that Bush administration officials are sympathetic to the Egyptian government's dilemma. "We do want a democratic process," the official said. "We're interested in groups that support democracy. Some of these religious groups have come out historically as groups that are trying to overthrow the regime, and they're not providing, in our mind, an alternative that allows for a free democratic process."
Ayman Nour calls his party liberal,which in Egypt means advocating a market economy and a multiparty democracy. "Egyptians are centrist," he said in an interview before Sunday's court decision. "They are afraid of the Islamic trend. The current opposition is all outdated, and at peace with the government. We are the logical alternative."
In the U.S., Nour's opponents would call him a carpetbagger. He is originally from a city on the Nile delta north of Cairo, and chose to run for the parliament seat that includes Bab Al-Sha'araya when it was clear to his former party, Al Wafd, that they had a shot at it. Nour started his career at the Wafd writing for their newspaper, and that period marked the beginning of his quarrels with the establishment, after he ran pictures showing torture in Egyptian prisons. Nour was thrown out of the party in 2000, after a dispute with the leadership.
But Bab Al-Sha'araya seems to have been a fortunate choice. The community center in the neighborhood's main square is now a project of the Nour Foundation, a charity named after the family and run by Gameela Ismail, Nour's wife. Ismail, who juggles duties as a mother, a writer for Newsweek magazine, and the host of several shows on Egyptian television, is the softer front of Ayman Nour's assault on the government.
Their charity group helps Bab Al-Sha'araya's residents, and especially women, navigate the notorious Egyptian bureaucracy. Every Wednesday night, the courtyard in front of the center is packed with petitioners asking for help with housing, schools, or the police, or just for money. Nour and Ismail normally spend about 45 minutes in the middle of this melee responding to requests before the evening program starts, at about 9 p.m. Upstairs in the center, neighborhood residents take computer and English classes.
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