ON MONDAY President Bush again called on Egypt to "lead the way" toward democratic change in the Middle East. Apparently Hosni Mubarak, the country's leader for the past 24 years, wasn't listening. Later that same day, Mr. Mubarak's agents renewed their "interrogation" of Ayman Nour, the imprisoned head of the liberal Tomorrow Party. Six hours later -- at 1 a.m. -- Mr. Nour, a diabetic with a history of heart trouble, was "sweating, vomiting and holding his left arm," his wife told the Reuters news agency. Authorities refused his doctor's request that he be hospitalized; instead, he was taken Tuesday to a prison clinic. The Egyptian Human Rights Organization has issued a statement warning that Mr. Nour's life is in danger. Mr. Mubarak's relationship with the United States, and the U.S. aid that props up his regime, should be in danger too.
Were Egypt to respond to Mr. Bush's call, Mr. Nour would likely do some of the leading. Though only in his forties, he has served in the powerless Egyptian parliament for a decade and, like much of the Egyptian elite, has grown steadily more insistent in demanding political change. Last fall Mr. Nour managed to legally register the Tomorrow Party; authorities may have calculated he would split the opposition without attracting a significant following. Instead, Mr. Nour almost immediately began campaigning against Mr. Mubarak's plans to reelect himself as president in an uncontested "referendum" later this year. A movement he helped to organize, popularly known by its slogan of "kifaya," or "enough," has been holding unprecedented public demonstrations. The first one in December attracted about 50 people; the fourth, on Monday at Cairo University, gathered more than 500.
The charge against Mr. Nour, that he is responsible for the forgery of some of the petitions submitted to register his party, is dismissed as groundless by independent Egyptian lawyers. In truth, he is in jail because, like Rafiq Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister who was assassinated last week, he offered a fresh democratic alternative in a Middle East stirred by the votes of Iraqis and Palestinians. Mr. Nour, like most of the rest of the Egyptian opposition, is not proposing a revolution. Their demand is that Mr. Mubarak lift repressive "emergency" laws and agree to constitutional reforms that would make future elections democratic. Many Egyptian activists, like Mr. Nour, would probably agree to an extension of the president's term in exchange for his commitment to the constitutional change. The alternative, they point out, is not the "stability" Mr. Mubarak claims to offer, but merely more of the stagnation that has made Egypt a prime breeding ground for Islamic extremists, including many of the leaders of al Qaeda.
The Bush administration has been relatively assertive in protesting Mr. Nour's imprisonment, but Mr. Mubarak has been provocative in his defiance. Last week Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hinted she might not attend an upcoming meeting in Egypt of the Arab League and the Group of Eight industrial nations if Mr. Nour's case was not resolved; Mr. Mubarak responded by canceling the meeting. His answer to Mr. Bush's appeal for steps toward reform has been to order a new wave of anti-American incitement in the state-run press and to have his goons rough up a man who proposes exactly the moderate, step-by-step change that Mr. Bush advocates -- and that Egypt desperately needs. Mr. Mubarak is no longer testing Mr. Bush; he is spitting in his face. It's a daring, maybe desperate act for a 76-year-old despot who would not survive without billions in U.S. subsidies. Egypt's future -- and Ayman Nour's life -- may depend on Mr. Bush's response.