Friday, March 18, 2005

The Curious Rise of Ayman Nour

Before he became an international cause celebre and a very special concern of US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, Ayman Nour was a relatively young, wealthy, super-slick ambitious politician known only to his constituents and Egypt's political class. The five (maybe seven) Egyptians who watch parliamentary debates on TV knew him as the beefy, garrulous guy with the carefully coiffed hair. With his arrest in late January, however, he morphed into an overnight celebrity, hailed by the foreign press as a "top liberal", an "opposition leader" whose prison musings were printed in a very high-profile outlet (it helps that his wife works for the outlet). Secretary Rice made short work of Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit at their 15 February meeting, affirming "I did raise our concerns, our very strong concerns about this case. I did talk at some length about the importance of this issue to the United States, to the American Administration, to the American Congress, to the American people. And I expressed our very strong hope that there will be a resolution of this very soon." And the ubiquitous Hisham Kassem, in his latest turn as Nour's international affairs Veep in al-Ghad (Tomorrow) Party, pronounced his party president the only one who could challenge Mubarak in an election.

Who is Ayman Nour? The scion of a wealthy Wafdist lawyer-landowner from Daqahliyya governorate, Nour joined his father's storied party while still a student; he would stride in to party and student union meetings fresh from his late-model Mercedes. Back then the "new Wafd" (est. 1984) was not quite the shell of its illustrious past it has since become. Once Egypt's most popular political party from 1920-1952, [the print edition of] al-Wafd's daily newspaper still sports party founder Saad Zaghlul's famous motto al-Haq fawq al-Quwwa wa al-Umma fawq al-Hukuma (Right over Might and the Nation over the Government, one of my favorite political slogans). In 1995, Nour won a parliamentary seat for the low-income Bab al-Sha'riyya neighborhood and since then has become a regular fixture in what passes for politics in Egyptian life, earning re-election in 2000. For a time he was also a board member of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR). Nour's website lists his accomplishments in full detail.

Nour was by far the Wafd’s savviest and most ambitious young member, and for this reason soon fell afoul of new party president No’man Goma. In a move echoing earlier generational disputes in Egyptian opposition parties, Goma expelled Nour in 2001 and cancelled his column in the party’s daily paper. The toadying editors took to snidely calling Nour "the Russian doctor" in reference to his doctoral degree in international law from a Russian university. Truth be told, Nour was one of the most frequent speakers in parliament, judging by the number of times he appeared on TV sparring with Fathi Sorour or Kamal al-Shazli. And he maintained a steady stream of patronage to his low-income constituents, cultivating his own and his TV anchor wife Gamila Ismail’s image as wealthy, kind benefactors to the poor hordes of Bab al-Sha’riyya. But Nour was certainly not the underdog, bold liberal democrat conjured up by the foreign media and US administration after his arrest. Without the Bush administration’s intense interest in tapping secular "liberal" elites in Arab countries as alternatives to Islamists, nationalists, and crusty regime stalwarts, Nour would have remained a run-of-the-mill Egyptian politician: ego-driven, not above deal-making with the government, with financial resources of murky provenance, and above all else: a man unknown outside of Cairo.

Before this whole debacle, a Christian Science Monitor article back in October captured this unusual new interest in Nour. Shortly afterward, Nour’s al-Ghad was legalized by Egypt’s notorious Political Parties Committee (est. 1977 and since then legalizing only two parties while rejecting dozens), which had earlier thrice rejected al-Ghad, the Islamist al-Wasat (Center) and the Nasserist Karama (Dignity) parties. Immediately, the rumor mill churned out speculations that the regime chose to legalize the least threatening of the three party projects, to endear itself with Washington while maintaining its iron grip on political life. Nour, flanked by party secretary-general Mona Makram Ebeid (another scion of a prominent nationalist Wafdist family), held a ridiculously self-important press conference on the steps of Beit al-Umma (Saad Zaghlul’s villa-turned-national-museum), all of them draped in orange sashes emblazoned with "Tomorrow is Coming." For a moment, it seemed as if both the regime and foreign interests were throwing their lot behind Nour and his acceptable Ghad.

Nour maintains that his party was legalized because the Committee feared an embarassing court ruling overturning its rejection, but this has never stopped it in the past; all of Egypt's opposition parties established in the 1990s came into being through court orders. And why legalize al-Ghad but turn down al-Wasat for the third time and Karama for the second time despite their certain recourse to the courts? The fact is, al-Ghad had all the right ingredients: a "liberal" outlook, read friendly to the free market (good with the Americans), a credentialed woman secretary-general (good with the Americans and good for Egypt's image), a relatively young president (good for the regime's image), and an English-speaking "vice president for international relations" whose sound-bites are hungrily lapped up by every foreign journalist and do-gooder diplomat (good for spicing up foreign news stories).

All was calm until Nour's abrupt arrest and charge with forging thousands of signatures on his party petition; never mind that Law 40/1977 governing political parties requires only 60 signatures. Why the abrupt turnaround? A lot had transpired between October and late January, notably a visit by former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who reportedly had a four-hour meeting with Nour at his home, in the presence of the ever-imperious, ever-irascible American ambassador David Welch (now off to the State Department in D.C.) and Egyptian government dignitaries. Perhaps Nour overstepped a regime "red line", perhaps Albright was too enthusiastic about his leadership prospects (thus eclipsing the fortunes of that other fortyish "liberal" ambitious politician, Mubarak junior), we'll never know. What we do know is that Nour was resoundingly expelled from the regime's grace in a manner eerily similar to sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim's comeuppance in 2000. Remember that Ibrahim was also hailed as a courageous dissident--"Egypt's Sakharov" to the fanciful Weekly Standard--but international accolades do not a domestic reputation make.

Sorry to rain on Ayman Nour and al-Ghad's parade, but his case is merely the latest chapter in the intense jockeying for position among a handful of powerful actors: the Mubarak regime, the Bush administration, the Europeans (in a slightly less influential role), and wily Egyptian elites of all stripes. The machinations did not begin with September 11, only intensified in its wake. In these Orwellian times, every actor drapes its intentions in the cloak of freedom, democracy, and "women's empowerment," but only a gullible consumer is taken in by glossy packaging. To be sure, Ibrahim, Nour, and any other ambitious strivers should not have their health destroyed and their reputations sullied because the regime is hell bent on monopolizing the political limelight. But they also shouldn't be touted as Egypt's best and only hope for democratic salvation. By choosing international patronage over the painstaking and unsexy work of coalition-building and consensus-forging with other domestic forces, Nour et al's Icarus wings will invariably melt every time they get too close. The many plots now being hatched to cultivate a new and improved Egyptian ruling elite might have all the right twists and dramatic turns, but let's be clear: it's not the drama of democracy, and Egyptians know it.