Anti-establishment in Egypt: the return of Ayman Nour

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."

While the Muslim Brotherhood has been around since before the founding of the Republic of Egypt, the government has had to start dealing with a new threat: bloggers.

The blogosphere in Egypt first became politicized on a massive scale in the wake of political unrest in 2005. Since then, their numbers have grown by the tens of thousands.

Unlike in some countries, the security forces, led by the Interior Ministry’s cyber crime division, don’t shut down websites critical of the government. They go after the writers.

“I would say this is the pattern,” said Hossam el-Hamalawy, one of Egypt’s most prominent bloggers. “It’s either phone up, threaten them, [or] stop them at the airport when they come. But we didn’t reach the level of, say, Tunisia,” where the government cracks down aggressively, banning people from the web or hacking their websites.

Many of these bloggers, though, are also street activists, protesting various government practices. It is in this context that many of them are arrested. El-Hamalawy is a socialist whose blog takes aim at the government’s labor practices. He says he was arrested and tortured in 2000 (before he started his blog) for tearing down the American flag that flew over the American University in Cairo. He has been arrested twice subsequently.

Part of the threat that bloggers pose to the government, he believes, is that they break stories of political or military abuse that conventional newspapers won’t.

He added that local print reporters have been known to feed controversial stories to bloggers so that they can report on the blog coverage instead of on the story itself.

Despite the crackdown, it’s remarkable that many of these political dissidents, who hail from all ends of the political spectrum, continue to lead life in the public eye.

El-Hamalawy serves as an editor at one of the country’s pre-eminent newspapers.

Al-Aryan works out of his office at the doctor’s syndicate in downtown.

Nour, who was unexpectedly released from jail early this year, has launched a grassroots political campaign called “Knocking on Doors.” As leader of the Ghad party, he goes door to door across the country, extolling the virtues of liberal democracy.

If his group tries to set up formal events, he says, security forces shut them down ahead of time. But they still let him go door to door and spread his message quietly.

“We can’t hold conferences,” he said. “We can’t own any newspapers or visual media. We are prevented from using any means of communications. The only right that they can’t prevent us from doing is our right to walk on our feet in the streets.”