In Egypt, Opposition Stymied by the State

By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 25, 2005

CAIRO, May 24 -- The campaign of Ayman Nour, the only opposition candidate challenging President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt's fall election, was reduced to this on Tuesday: A clutch of 20 Nour supporters bought tickets to the movie "Kingdom of Heaven" in order to have an excuse to loiter in front of a downtown cinema and shout anti-Mubarak slogans.

The ruse to overcome police restrictions on public meetings didn't work for long. Within a half-hour, a phalanx of thick-forearmed plainclothes security agents backed by dozens of club-carrying riot police marched down narrow Abdel-Hamid Said Street, shoved the protesters into the lobby of the Odeon Theater and scattered reporters and passersby down the block.

Five of the plainclothes men dragged Ihab Khouly, a senior member of Nour's Tomorrow Party, to jail for a brief stay. Nour's wife, Gamila Ismael, was manhandled, though she was soon permitted to return to nearby party headquarters.

It was a small episode in what critics say is an increasingly brazen campaign of intimidation against opposition forces as Egypt heads toward its first multi-candidate presidential election. Nour's campaign has almost come to a halt because of an attack on a caravan in early May by a mob in a community northeast of Cairo.

Members of parties and organizations that have protested Mubarak's proposed election rules have suffered almost daily arrests and police raids. By official count, more than 750 members of the Muslim Brotherhood have been rounded up during the past two months. Although it is banned from political activity, the Brotherhood is Egypt's largest opposition group. On Tuesday, 19 members of Kifaya, a movement that has spearheaded peaceful protests since last fall, were arrested for putting up anti-Mubarak posters.

All the main opposition forces are calling for Egyptians to boycott a referendum scheduled for Wednesday on a constitutional amendment that would allow restricted competition in September's presidential vote. The restrictions on who can run and disputes over the role of independent monitors are behind the calls for a boycott.

Some parties insist that Mubarak should be banned from running. He has been repeatedly elected in referendums in which his name appears alone on the ballot and citizens are asked to vote yes or no.

The Odeon Theater fracas came a day after first lady Laura Bush, on a trip to the Middle East, endorsed Mubarak's election proposals. "I think it's a very wise and bold step," she said Monday.

Nour, the opposition candidate, responded sourly to the remarks. "It shows she doesn't understand anything at all. She made a statement that suggests she doesn't know she was in Egypt. It was comical," Nour said in an interview at his headquarters after the theater demonstration.

Ismael, his wife, asserted that the Bush administration has given a green light to government repression through warm greetings to Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif during his visit to Washington last week and by the first lady's comments. "Through its attitude, the administration gives confidence to the regime that it can be aggressive," she said. "It can crush even a small demonstration with impunity."

Opposition figures maintain that Suzanne Mubarak, the president's wife, is trying to persuade her husband to arrange for Gamal, their son, to succeed him. Suzanne Mubarak accompanied Laura Bush for much of her schedule in Egypt.

The Tomorrow Party activists said they staged the rally because police warned them not to travel to Minya in the south for a campaign meeting, saying the town would be sealed off if they came. Using code words and mobile phones, Tomorrow members tried to organize the sidewalk protest in Cairo on the sly. But in a city where no street is without a thousand eyes, the police soon arrived.

"What kind of presidential campaign can we have if we have to organize in secret?" Ismael asked as the police began to corral the group inside the Odeon. A few baffled moviegoers tried to weave past the cluster of police and demonstrators, but were turned back. The rest of the street was sealed off with chains and plainclothes men. The demonstrators were eventually permitted to leave the theater one by one.

Under emergency laws in place for almost 25 years, police can break up any gathering of more than five people. In a March speech, President Bush included the right of assembly as a prerequisite for a fair election in Egypt. Abdel Halim Qandeel, a founding member of Kifaya, which means "enough," said: "The Bushes are something like the Mubaraks. Full of lies."

As Nour's small demonstration was dispersed, state television broadcast accounts and images from meetings, held across Egypt, of Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party. Gamal Mubarak, head of the party's policy committee, presided at one such gathering in Cairo.

Nour's campaign has gotten off to a rocky start. His party, which advocates free-market economic policies and civil liberties, was legalized last fall. He declared his candidacy after Mubarak in February authorized multi-candidate elections. In March, police jailed Nour on charges of forging documents required to obtain legal status for the party. He was released after six weeks, but his trial is set to begin in late June.

In early May, Nour and campaign supporters traveled by bus to Sharqiya, 50 miles northeast of Cairo, but were met by a mob in a nearby village that threw stones, broke windshields and overturned a vehicle. Government-run newspapers said Nour's wife had organized the melee against the convoy.

Nour has no specific plans to take to the stump soon. "It is in God's hands," he said. About the campaign, he said: "I have no regrets. This is an important step in ripping off the false mask of the regime."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company