Sunday, January 01, 2006

Egypt: What happened to hopes for democracy?

Last Saturday, Egypt’s top opposition leader Ayman Nour was sentenced to five years in prison after a court in Cairo convicted him of ordering forged signatures to be added to petitions that put his name on September's ballot. What does this mean for Egypts’s democratic reforms and its relations with the U.S.? Newsweek reports:

Egypt’s presidential elections last September were supposed to be the highlight of the Bush administration’s campaign to promote democracy in the Middle East. Instead, they’ve become an embarrassing acknowledgement of its failure.

No one ever thought Mubarak or his National Democratic Party (NDP) would let the reforms go so far that he’d lose his grip on power. But even the Bush administration has been chagrined at the lengths to which the regime has gone to destroy its opponents while pretending to let democracy take its course. Those measures have been especially extreme in the case of the country’s leading opposition candidate, Ayman Nour, who heads the Ghad (or Tomorrow) Party.

In the September presidential elections, Nour came in second in a crowded field. And though his vote total of 7.6 percent was far behind Mubarak’s 88.6 percent, it was a wake-up call to the regime. “I dared to challenge the pharoah,” he said. “And the pharaohs used to kill all the possible male heirs except their own. Mubarak wants to hand Egypt over to his own son, Gamal, and Gamal could never beat me in a free election.”

Gamal, 41, may well never have to face Nour . Since Nour’s quixotic presidential campaign, the Mubarak machine has gone into overdrive to destroy him—politically, personally and professionally, according to both critics and supporters of the opposition leader. After the vote, Nour was charged with forgery again, as well as a host of bribery, corruption and other charges, including insulting the president. On Dec. 24 Nour was convicted and sentenced to five years’ hard labor.

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Time also has a report on the conviction of Nour and its consequences for the politicial future of Egypt, saying Mubarak’s government is more intent upon neutralizing reformers like Ayman Nour, while giving leeway to the Islamic Muslim Brotherhood (the same mistake the Shah of Iran did which eventually led to his downfall and the rise of radical Islamists to power in 1979):

Nour’s troubles fit a longstanding pattern of government intimidation against democratic alternatives that might appeal to many Egyptians fed up with autocracy as well as to Western governments that have otherwise long done business with Mubarak’s regime.

Mubarak’s regime appears to be intent upon neutralizing reformers like Nour to ensure that his ruling party remains the country’s only viable force for achieving development and stability. To strengthen his position, Mubarak has adopted reform as his own agenda and promised change from within. Another part of Mubarak’s strategy seems to be to show that it is Muslim fundamentalists who pose the real challenge, and that his steady regime alone can prevent them from taking over and imposing an Islamic state.

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