Like the Pharaohs who ruled Egypt from 3110 BC to 332 BC, Hosni Mubarak has been at the top or near the top of his country’s political establishment for four decades. As head of the Air Force in the 1960s, the Soviet-trained then-Gen. Mubarak humiliated his Soviet advisers when they told him they had detected a gap in Israel’s radar coverage around the Sinai Peninsula. They thought this would be a good opportunity for Egyptian pilots to fly through the hole, drop a few bombs and return safely. He declined, telling his pilots that if gap there was, it was most probably an Israeli trap.
The Soviet general attached to the Egyptian leader ordered five Russian pilots to fly the mission instead. The Israelis shot down all five in the same dogfight. While not a hero of the Soviet Union, he rapidly became one of Egypt. In 1974, four years into his presidency, Anwar Sadat named him vice president. And when Islamist extremists in the Egyptian army assassinated Sadat during a military parade in 1981, Mr. Mubarak automatically became president.
A quarter of a century at the pinnacle was beginning to wear a tad long for most Egyptians who worried he had failed to appoint a vice president — he is still looking for a worthy candidate he told visitors one day — while grooming his son AMA, a wealthy businessman, as his successor, denials notwithstanding. The United States fretted about the lack of democracy and soon found a Chalabi-like politician who seemed at first blush to meet the Bush Doctrine’s criteria for a democratic challenger.
Ayman — pronounced amen — Nour, 41, is a leading opposition member of parliament and head of a brand new political party: Al-Ghad (Tomorrow). He has made all the right noises to earn brownie points at the White House. From constitutional reform to curtailing the president’s powers with a two-term limit, and from freedom of expression to a vibrant multi-party system, Mr. Ayman is Washington’s man.
His recent arrest — after a tame, pro-Mubarak parliament stripped him of his immunity — on forgery charges was bound to enhance his credentials as a viable presidential candidate. The Interior Ministry’s Anti-Forgery Department said, “An investigation into the political practices of MP Ayman Nour showed that, in an attempt to gain a legal license for his party, Nour had fabricated and forged the signatures of as many as 1,187 citizens. Nour forged these signatures to provide the Political Parties Committee with what is needed to legalize his party.”
Just two days before his arrest, Mr. Nour’s meeting with former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, may have been the straw that broke the Mubarak camel’s back. Dr. Rice, Mrs. Albright’s successor, also had nice things to say about him. Some anti-Mubarak politicians are cautioning about Mr. Nour’s checkered background, which they say includes:
False claims about a Ph.D. from the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Science.
Accused twice of plagiarism. Once as a columnist in the Wafd newspaper copying word for word from Mostafa Amin’s book titled “Forbidden Ideas.” A second time in a book where 16 pages were copied verbatim from Egyptian journalist Mohammed Moro’s book titled, “The Black File.”
To gain the sympathy of his constituency in the 1995 parliamentary elections, he staged a phony assassination attempt on himself, complete with a gunshot, a broken windshield in his car and traces of fake blood. The investigation proved the whole scene had been a fabrication.
On June 6, 2001, Mr. Nour was accused by the Egyptian Ministry of Communications of stealing 42 telephone lines to provide illegally, through the Internet, a cheap international telephone service. Political pressure was then exerted to drop legal procedures against him.
In 1986, in the Wafd newspaper, he published several pictures of jailed Islamic fundamentalists that showed wounds and bruises that the captions said showed wounds and bruises from alleged torture. Two years later, Mr. Nour admitted in a televised police interrogation these pictures were taken in his house and the wounds and bruises were nothing more than make-up.
In the early 1980s, Mr. Nour worked as the Cairo office manager of the Saudi-owned Al Madina newspaper, where he was fired because of alleged embezzlement and falsification of documents.
Since 1998, Mr. Nour has been trying by a variety of means to take control of a political party. He was accused of falsifying documents to move in as chairman of the Social Justice Party. In early 2001, he attempted to occupy the premises of the Wafd Party, and later that same year he tried to buy his way into the chairmanship of the Greens, then of the Misr Arab Socialist Party. And now he stands accused of having forged the number of signatures required to form the “Tomorrow Party.”
A checkered background has seldom been a handicap when challenging a strongman in the developing world. In fact, it is often a prerequisite. But it might behoove the Bush administration to take another look at Ayman Nour before it opts to make the annual $2.1 billion aid to Egypt package conditional on democratic change.
Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large for United Press International and for The Washington Times.