CAIRO, March 11 -- Two weeks after President Hosni Mubarak announced that Egypt would hold multi-candidate presidential elections, the first politician to say he would run was sitting in jail.
Inmate No. 1387 at Tora jail is Ayman Nour, a lawyer and member of parliament. His normal residence is a penthouse apartment decorated with bronze French Empire-style knickknacks, gigantic gilt mirrors and a plaster image of Marilyn Monroe with her skirt blowing upward.
Ayman Nour, right, a candidate for president of Egypt, is surrounded by police at a court appearance in late January.
(Nasser Nouri -- AP)
Nour, whose small Tomorrow Party was legalized in October and holds six seats in Egypt's 454-member parliament, is only one of thousands of Egyptian political figures jailed during decades of authoritarian rule. Yet since his arrest Jan. 29 on suspicion of forging official documents, his fate has become intertwined with the destiny of political change in Egypt.
State Department and European Union officials, all pressing for democratic reform, have complained about his detention. Pro-government reformists who dispute Nour on the details and pace of change nonetheless express concern that his internment will discredit their own efforts. Government officials reject complaints that Nour is being persecuted and insist that his case is a domestic legal question and not the business of outsiders. And the people of Cairo, legendarily indifferent to politics, are debating the justice of his case.
The extent of Nour's popularity is difficult to gauge -- there have been no polls on prospective presidential candidates. Mustafa Kamel Sayed, a political science professor at Cairo University, said recently that Nour might be able to win 20 or even 30 percent of the vote in a race against Mubarak.
Regardless, his arrest exposes the uncertainty of a government that feels itself under siege, observers say. The Bush administration has singled out Egypt as overripe for reform. Political demonstrators are becoming increasingly loud and anti-Mubarak, even though they are still far outnumbered by phalanxes of police officers. The government appears reluctant to risk letting an independent politician run free.
"Fear makes for political mistakes. Everything is up in the air, and you will find cases like Nour's," said Hala Mustafa, editor in chief of the al-Ahram Democracy Review, part of a government-backed reform research group. She declined to comment on the merits of Nour's case.
Aida Seif Dawla, a longtime left-wing activist and human rights campaigner, said it was "an extremely weak moment for the government. It's not just Nour. Far from it. They pick up people handing out leaflets at the book fair. The government wants to give the appearance of making a new start, but it's not going to take any risks."
At first blush, Nour seems an unlikely political martyr. He campaigned for competitive presidential elections, but he is far from a revolutionary. In an interview two days before his arrest, he predicted that whatever the conditions, this year's election would simply extend Mubarak's 24-year reign for another six years. In October, he told a reporter, "We love and appreciate President Mubarak, but we love this nation as well and would like to develop it like other countries."
Said Gamila Ismail, Nour's wife and political aide: "Ayman was the most surprised of all about his arrest. He never gave it a second thought."
Nour had taken positions recently, however, that were daring by the standards of Egyptian political discourse. On the eve of a meeting between Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party and opposition groups, he sent a letter demanding that Mubarak attend the conference; otherwise, Nour said he would not. This assertion of equality irritated the president, party insiders said. Nour was jailed three days before the conference opened.
Nour's associates say he also had told them that he thought Mubarak's wife, Suzanne, was pressing her husband to arrange for their son Gamal to succeed him.
That kind of talk is risky, despite an easing of repression that has brought life to a political scene still restricted by quarter-century-old emergency laws. Security agents telephone foreign correspondents' Egyptian assistants to ask whom they are talking to and about what. This week, when the Tomorrow Party issued the first edition of its newspaper -- in which Nour announced his candidacy -- police held up distribution for a day to review the articles.
"Nour's problem is that he has been acting in excess of his real political influence," said Ali Abdel Fattah, an official of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood, an Islamic-based organization once associated with violence in Egypt, is banned from politics but is regarded as the country's biggest opposition force.