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Anti-establishment in Egypt: the return of Ayman Nour

The one-time presidential candidate is among dissidents who won't be silenced, despite the government's efforts prior to 2011 elections.

Egyptian opposition politician, Ayman Nour, speaks to the media at his home in Cairo after being released from prison, Feb. 18, 2009. Nour has now begun another a grassroots political campaign called "Knocking on Doors," for which he goes door to door, extolling the virtues of liberal democracy. (Asmaa Waguih/Reuters)

CAIRO, Egypt — We had just finished Round One of an intense interview with Ayman Nour. The 2005 runner-up for the Egyptian presidency, who subsequently spent three years in jail, slipped out for a cigarette on the rooftop of his opulent Cairo apartment before heading inside to resume his interview with GlobalPost.

Halfway to his seat, though, he stopped and beckoned me to come close.

“You asked me about torture,” he said, referencing a question I had asked him about his imprisonment. “I didn’t want to talk much about it, because I didn’t want to upset my son.”

But with his son out of the room, Nour rolled up the leg of his well-tailored suit. His ghostly white leg was pocked with deep black-and-blue marks that he said were left by the chains his guards used to bound him.

“And I’m not going to show you my back,” he said in a near-whisper.

In a second, the moment had passed, and Nour sunk back into his chair, ready for more questioning.

Such is life for this most high-profile of Egypt’s political dissidents.

The years 2004 and 2005 represented what the deputy Muslim Brotherhood leader Essam Al-Aryan calls the “spring of semi-democracy,” with Nour running a robust campaign for the presidency — he won 9 percent of the vote — and the Muslim Brotherhood picking up 20 percent of the seats in the lower house of parliament.

Now, though, with parliamentary elections looming next year and presidential elections slated for 2011, the government looks eager to shore up its primacy by clamping down aggressively on political opposition.

But the government is finding foes in every corner of the political spectrum. Islamists, liberal democrats, socialists and more have been fighting for a voice.

While the government has used the legal system to hamper the opposition’s efforts, harassment and detention seem to be the tools of choice.

If arrests are any indication, the Muslim Brotherhood is the government’s biggest worry. Just last week, security forces scooped up 12 members of the group. On Saturday, the government arrested 24 more members. More than 300 now languish in jail, according to Al-Aryan, most charged with belonging to a banned group.

“All Muslim Brotherhood now are waiting for arrest,” he said. “Tens of thousands of people are Muslim Brothers. They live under such tensions … And of course it is a message in preparation for the upcoming elections.”

“Now, for any Muslim Brother, prison is a second home,” quipped Al-Aryan, who says he has been arrested eight times over 30 years, including three times between 2005 and 2007. He claims to have been tortured twice.

The government denies that the arrests are political. And it leans on the judiciary to back up its claim.

"The defendant can say whatever he wants to say to defend himself. That's his constitutional right," said Mohamed Quita, a member of parliament from the ruling party. In reference to Nour, he added: "But the fair judicial system has had its word. And they were convicted of their crimes, which shows it was not political, and these allegations have no basis in truth."

The government also denies the torture charges. According to Quita, his party has visited prisons investigated the charges but "didn't find any trail of torture."