New Tests for Egypt's Opposition

Ayman Nour, leader of the Tomorrow Party, finished a distant second in the presidential election but wants to run candidates in every legislative district.
Ayman Nour, leader of the Tomorrow Party, finished a distant second in the presidential election but wants to run candidates in every legislative district. (By Amr Nabil -- Associated Press)
By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 24, 2005

CAIRO -- It was an unsettling moment. Ayman Nour, the politician who challenged Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's bid for a fifth term, shed tears of joy in the presence of a visiting reporter. He had just received a phone call informing him that a judge had dismissed an effort by renegade members of his party to oust him as leader.

If the effort had succeeded, it would have paralyzed the Tomorrow Party within weeks after Nour finished a distant second in the Sept. 7 presidential vote and less than two months before parliamentary elections.

"Thank God," he said at the news. "One obstacle down. There will be others.

"There's a lot of stress involved," he continued, explaining the tears.

Egypt had barely caught its breath from the presidential vote -- the first time Egyptians could mark ballots listing more than one candidate -- when parties and politicians started gearing up for the November parliamentary elections. The campaign promises to be wide open. With nearly 450 seats at stake, there could be thousands of candidates.

Although Nour won only about 7 percent of the presidential vote, he says he believes he can claim a place as top opposition leader by running his party's candidates in every parliamentary district and winning a significant share of seats. Nour accuses government agents of mounting the challenge to his party leadership and other judicial maneuvers to divert him from organizing and campaigning.

The government, he said, has renewed its efforts to hamstring him in court by fostering a new criminal case against him. Prosecutors are charging him with arranging the jailing of an innocent man in place of one of his law clients. Just how this might have been done is not clear, but Nour said the case is a frame-up. "I wasn't even practicing law when they said this incident happened," he said.

Since January, charges of forging official documents have hung over Nour. He served six weeks in jail while prosecutors investigated. The case remains open, and a hearing is set for the end of September. "It's war," said Nour, who so far has been unwilling to congratulate Mubarak on the election results.

Political observers contend that even with Nour's low vote total, his performance signaled at least one change in Egyptian politics: He pushed aside traditional, docile opposition parties and their geriatric leadership. He won more than twice as many votes as Noman Gomaa, the 71-year-old leader of the Wafd Party, an organization with an 80-year history. "At 40 years old, Nour has emerged as the country's de facto leader of the opposition," said Cairo magazine. Other opposition parties are grappling with leadership changes.

A parallel generational change is underway at the National Democratic Party (NDP), Mubarak's political organization and electoral juggernaut. Mubarak's 41-year-old son, Gamal, and a group of businessmen, technocrats and academicians ran the presidential campaign. Old-line NDP politicians were nowhere to be seen or heard.

The NDP is preparing to run a slate of fresh faces in the parliamentary elections, said Mohammed Kamal, a member of the presidential campaign team. The NDP is trying to change its reputation from a party that mainly provided stuffed ballot boxes at past elections to one that has a genuine mandate to rule Egypt, party officials say. Currently, the NDP holds more than 80 percent of the legislative seats.

Gamal Mubarak's inner circle is playing a key role in picking parliamentary candidates, his associates say. He also heads the ruling party's policies committee, a group that has designed recent free-market initiatives in Egypt. He has steadfastly denied having presidential ambitions, yet his very presence overshadows any other NDP voice.

Nour and other opposition politicians contend that the government is preparing for the younger Mubarak's succession by making the NDP, with its long hold on patronage and government bureaucracy, his personal vehicle. "Gamal Mubarak is running the country by proxy," Nour said.

Nour expressed hope that Gamal Mubarak would run for parliament, setting up a clear-cut political battle. "I would run in any district where he was the candidate," he said. "Oh, how I wish he would run."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company