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Egypt Holds Candidate Despite Vow Of Reform

On the morning of Jan. 29, Nour received notification that his immunity from prosecution as a member of parliament was being lifted. He rushed to the People's Assembly building and was told that police were investigating forgeries among documents he submitted last year to the government in his bid to have his party legalized. When legislators -- 85 percent of whom belong to Mubarak's party -- voted to expose Nour to prosecution, he responded heatedly: "I put myself in the hands of God and the Egyptian people. All know I am innocent." He turned to the head of parliament and labeled him "unjust." The legislature later struck the words from the record.

A few minutes after his arrest, police searched his apartment, while his wife and two children were present. The 15 agents went through computer disks, inspected his medicine cabinet and even took samples of pipe tobacco, Ismail said.

Ayman Nour, right, a candidate for president of Egypt, is surrounded by police at a court appearance in late January. (Nasser Nouri -- AP)

Prosecutors and a court have until Tuesday to decide whether to press charges or release him. Late Thursday, prosecutors announced the release of one of Nour's associates, Ayman Barakat, who also was detained on forgery charges.

In effect, the stage is set for a test of Egypt's reform efforts and its relations with the United States, which provides the country $2 billion in annual aid. On Jan. 31, State Department spokesman Richard A. Boucher said, "The arrest, in our minds, raises questions about the outlook for democratic process in Egypt." Two weeks later, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice told Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit about the Bush administration's "strong concerns."

Although Egyptian officials are reluctant to publicly comment on the case, they insist that the allegations are valid. "The issue of Ayman Nour is an issue related to criminal accusations," Aboul Gheit said in an interview. "There are no political considerations. It remains with the attorney general to decide, without interference of outside powers."

The case hinges on the activities of a Tomorrow Party member who told police he forged numerous documents with signatures of people purporting to back the party's legalization bid -- all at Nour's request. Only 50 such papers are needed, but Nour provided more than 2,000. Prosecutors contend that more than 1,000 were forgeries.

Nour's attorney, Amir Salem, a human rights activist who has been jailed nine times, said Nour forged no documents and the informer was a plant. "I've never seen a frame-up prepared like this," he said.

Nour, 40, has been involved in politics since high school. His father was a pioneer member of the Wafd Party, a group that dates from the 1920s. "I remember seeing him 21 years ago get out of his late-model Mercedes and go right into student meetings to play politics," Mazen Mustafa, a Tomorrow Party member, said of the younger Nour. "He was different from others. He liked to let others speak."

Fifteen years ago, Nour published a book presenting liberalism as an alternative to Islamic politics. In 1994, he won a seat in parliament representing Cairo's Bab ash-Shariya district, a teeming neighborhood of butchers and farm supply shops. He broke with Wafd five years ago because he came to believe the party was too tame, ran again in Bab ash-Shariya and won. "He is ambitious, that is for sure," said Wael Nawara, another Tomorrow member.

In parliament, Nour carried out investigations of everything from bread prices to torture, endearing himself to his impoverished constituency, supporters say. He operated a charity office and community center in Bab ash-Shariya that provided medical advice, a hall for free weddings and school lessons for children.

On Wednesday, at a teahouse in Bab ash-Shariya, a laborer said Nour was guilty only of "trying to be president and be democratic. . . . He cares about this area. He paved sidewalks and planted trees."

A critic arrived and began to sing the praises of Mubarak: "He should stay in office forever. Ayman Nour must have done something wrong or he wouldn't be in jail."

"This is democracy?" countered the laborer. "Anyone who speaks up can end up in the same trouble."

That night, Nour's supporters held a candlelight vigil to demand his release. About 50 demonstrators and at least three times as many police officers showed up.

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