- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 13, 2005

CAIRO — Ayman Nour, the opposition politician released from jail during the weekend, has done the unthinkable in a country where charismatic challengers are kept from rising, mainly by powerful security officials.

First, he won a seat in parliament for two terms, then developed a popular base and finally gained approval for a political party, only the third in 25 years, after three rejections and without a court order.

Now he is presenting himself as an alternative to President Hosni Mubarak when the nation holds its first multiparty presidential election later this year.

“You should expect a competition that is not cosmetic. … We will participate with the attitude of the alternative,” Mr. Nour said yesterday at his first press conference since his release Saturday.

Although he acknowledged that his party had yet to choose its candidate in the election, Mr. Nour said he hoped to run “against [Mr. Mubarak’s] National Democratic Party, not against a person,” Reuters news agency reported.

The ruling party boasts vastly greater resources than Mr. Nour’s small group, but he said the battle “will be equal through their mistakes … and in their very modest assets in hearts of Egyptians.”

Elected for the first time at the tender age of 30, Mr. Nour built a reputation for charity to the poor in Cairo’s old city. Hundreds from the neighborhood gathered to demand his release after he was arrested Jan. 29 on charges of forging documents.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice canceled a visit to Egypt in response to the arrest, and on Saturday, the government released him on bail.

Since high school, Mr. Nour, now 40, has skillfully maneuvered through the highest reaches of Egypt’s political system — monopolized by a single party for a half-century — to emerge for some as a national hero who can bring new blood and for others as a fraud backed by foreigners.

His arrest on charges of forging signatures to register his party prompted supporters to accuse the government of trying to smear and eliminate a prospective challenger.

It was during his six weeks in detention that Mr. Mubarak announced plans to change the constitution to allow a multicandidate presidential election.

In prison diaries published a week ago in the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper, Mr. Nour wrote about his “humiliating” arrest outside parliament.

“There was nothing I could do in the face of this flagrant tyranny, but raise my hands to the sky, asking God to see what they are doing. I cried loudly: ‘Let the tyrant hear, the history record and Egypt witness … this is the fate of the honest men in Egypt,’” he wrote.

Mr. Nour’s problem, some say, is that his popularity has infringed on the ruling party’s new reform agenda — led by Mr. Mubarak’s son, Gamal, who is rumored to be set to take over from his father.

“People deal with him like he is the government — he is the one that solves their problems and defends them. God chose [him] to be in this place. Will you let the [people] down?” asked Mr. Nour’s elegant 37-year-old wife, Gamila Ismail, his deputy in the al-Ghad, or Tomorrow, party.

Sitting in her luxury apartment in an upscale Cairo neighborhood, Mrs. Ismail said her husband once had good relations with Mr. Mubarak’s government.

“But they pressed him and hit him when necessary,” she said.

Only the Muslim Brotherhood — Egypt’s largest Islamic group, which was outlawed but operates a large social-services network — represents any other true challenge to Mr. Mubarak.

Seventeen members of the group represent the largest bloc in the 454-seat parliament outside the ruling party, and its candidates run as independents, which the state tolerates but controls.

Mr. Nour has been the target of gunfire in a 1995 election campaign, accused of acting as an agent for foreign countries and receiving bribes in 2000, and was kicked out of a reformist political party, Al-Wafd, that year after challenging its leader.

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