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In Egypt, A Challenge to Bush’s Freedom Talk

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Ayman Nour talks to the media last fall

Ayman Nour,the head of a prominent Egyptian opposition political party and a member of parliament, appeared in a Cairo court yesterday, two days after he was arrested on suspicion of forging most of the supporter’s signatures he used to form his party. Nour denies the accusations, and human rights groups in Egypt have said the arrest is intended to send a “message” to President Hosni Mubarak’s political opposition. The judge yesterday extended Nour’s original detention by 45 days.

Last night, I finally got through to Gameela Ismail, Nour’s wife, who seemed as confused as everyone else regarding the timing of the arrest (though she has little doubt the move is political). She said that last Saturday, while she was watching her husband on television defend himself in parliament, security officials showed up at her house, and spent the next six hours searching the place. She says they went through clothes and various tobacco products, checked the pills in the medicine cabinet, sniffed empty perfume bottles, confiscated computers and a tape recorder, and then made sketches of the apartment.

After the parliament session ended, Ayman Nour walked outside, and was arrested on the street.

It’s hard to tell what prompted the arrest. I have no real information on the strength of the case against him, and can only say it seems unlikely, based on my observations, that Nour’s group, Hizb Al-Ghad, would have to forge all but fourteen of his supporter’s signatures. Ismail said that her husband had issued a statement recently calling for “equivalence” in a reform dialogue being held this week. In shorthand, Nour was suggesting that Mubarak himself participate in the talks. Ismail said Nour had also met with Madeline Albright, who was visiting Egypt last week as part of a Council on Foreign Relations delegation.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher weighed in on Nour’s detention yesterday. “The arrest, in our mind, raises questions about the outlook for a democratic process in Egypt,” he said, mentioning the reform dialogue. “We find this arrest at this moment incongruous with proceeding with that dialogue.”

Unfortunately, Nour, who said he said he had been mistreated by the authorities, is providing a rather compelling test case for the tumultuous Egyptian political scene. Mubarak has spent much of the past few weeks answering questions about whether he will run for a fifth term; whether his son, Gamal, will succeed him; and whether the constitution of the country should be amended to allow direct elections. The protests against the government are becoming loud, and Nour is among the more dynamic opposition figures. If the arrest is political, it’s hard to see the logic of it. Barring real evidence of wrongdoing, it would seem to empower Nour and Al-Ghad.

Nour’s case, of course, also tests George W. Bush’s new/rearticulated doctrine for the region. The question is not just whether Bush is serious about supporting reformers, but also whether there’s anything he can do. Does Nour want American help? Would he say so publicly? Does the election in Iraq affect or change the Egyptian dynamic?

Questions, for now.

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