Stand With Ayman Nour

Friday, December 23, 2005

"When you stand for your liberty we will stand with you. Democratic reformers facing repression, prison or exile can know: America sees you for who you are -- the future leaders of your free country."

-- President Bush, in his second inaugural address

PRESIDENT BUSH'S stirring commitment was only nine days old when Egypt's Ayman Nour was arrested in January. Mr. Nour, a 41-year-old member of parliament and a secular democrat, had announced that he intended to challenge President Hosni Mubarak's plan to extend his term in office. The 77-year-old strongman responded by ordering Mr. Nour's prosecution on trumped-up charges. U.S. pressure obtained Mr. Nour's release on bail in March, and he proceeded to stage a quixotic campaign against Mr. Mubarak in September's unfair presidential election.

Now, with the election over and U.S. attention focused on Iraq, Egypt's strongman has returned to persecuting his most prominent liberal opponent. Mr. Nour is back in prison, having been deprived by fraud of his parliamentary seat. Tomorrow, an Egyptian judge notorious for handling the president's dirty work is expected to sentence him to prison. If Mr. Bush's commitment to freedom fighters means anything at all, he cannot allow this blatant act of injustice to go unchallenged.

Some cases of political persecution have gray areas: The defendant might be guilty of supporting violence or hold an extremist ideology. Mr. Nour's is not one of them. He is one of Egypt's foremost proponents of a secular liberal democracy, credited with 8 percent of the vote in the presidential election. The charge against him, forgery, was proved a fabrication five months ago, when one of the principal witnesses recanted in court, saying he had been forced by state security police to invent his testimony. That the trial has continued, with Mr. Nour jailed since Dec. 5, can be explained only by the judge, Abdel Salam Gomaa, a sycophantic follower of Mr. Mubarak who in 2002 sentenced another famous pro-democracy activist, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, to seven years in prison.

In some situations there isn't much the United States can do to help a suffering dissident. That's not the case here, either. Each year, the United States provides Mr. Mubarak's regime with $1.8 billion in military and economic aid; without that money for his generals it's doubtful the aged president could remain in office. Mr. Nour was released on bail in March after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice canceled a visit to Egypt. In 2002, a Bush administration threat to withhold several hundred million dollars in aid got Mr. Ibrahim's case in front of the Egyptian Supreme Court, which promptly annulled his conviction. Mr. Mubarak's vindictive persecution of Mr. Nour, whom he perceives as a political rival to his son Gamal, has outraged much of Egypt's political establishment, which would quietly welcome U.S. intervention. Even some members of Mr. Mubarak's cabinet privately describe the prosecution as senseless.

In short, the imprisonment of Mr. Nour will provide Mr. Bush with an opportunity -- and an imperative -- to fight for the cause of democracy in the heart of the Arab Middle East. Mr. Mubarak believes he can suppress his leading democratic challenger and get away with it, because of Egypt's cooperation with Israel and support for the Palestinian Authority. Mr. Bush, and Congress, must prove that wrong, both to the Egyptian government and to the Arabs across the Middle East who will be closely watching Washington's reaction in this case. Standing with Ayman Nour means standing against military aid for Mr. Mubarak until this democratic reformer is free.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company