The man who dares to take on Egypt's brutal regime
Ayman Nour touches his sideburns, just a shade grey beneath his black hair: not bad for a 45-year old, but not up to the standard of the absolutely uncompromisingly jet black hair of 82-year-old Egyptian President Hosni Moubarak, whose job – in theory at least – Dr Nour would like.
Mind you, being Mr Moubarak's rival is not for amateurs. It's cost Dr Nour more than four years in prison and here he is, on the eve of Egyptian parliamentary elections, sitting in Beirut – rather than Cairo – to express his disdain for the 'moderate', 'pro-Western' regime of America's favourite Middle Eastern dictator (alongside King Abdullah of Jordan, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Bouteflika of Algeria, Ben Ali of Tunis, King Hassan of Morocco and the rest). So long live President Hosni Moubarak.
But how long? Dr Nour's Ghad party – Ghad means 'tomorrow', which may never come – is not taking part in this weekend's parliamentary elections which will, he feels sure, be as rigged as every election in Egypt since the early years of President Anwar Sadat. "I believe that what you are about to witness at the weekend is part tragedy, part comedy, a black comedy," he says. "You want to go to Cairo on Saturday, Robert? You might just go there for fun."
Dr Nour is a lawyer by profession, and as a legal man, he must annoy Moubarak as much as the lawyers of Pakistan infuriated President-General Mousharraf before his fall; indeed, Nour's imprisonment before Egypt's 2005 presidential election – supposedly for forging powers of attorney to create his Ghad party – showed that Moubarak's anger could embrace a lawyer or two. After winning 7 per cent of the vote – 25 per cent might have been the true figure, according to him – in an election that was unmonitored by foreign observers, Nour was banged up again in the infamous Tora prison, this time with a five-year sentence.
It wasn't a pleasant stay. Dr Nour doesn't like to talk about this part of his life. "I don't want new generations in Egypt to be terrified or frightened to stand up for themselves," he says. "But unfortunately, there were pictures of me that circulated on the internet that showed bruises and parts of my body that were beaten. They stopped me from receiving food and medicine from outside" – Dr Nour is a diabetic – "and they stopped me from praying. The prison guards were following orders – given to them out of spite – to make my life miserable."
But hold on, I say. Is he saying that Hosni Moubarak of Egypt actually knew that inmates like him would be duffed up? "I was beaten up only once," he replies carefully, "on the 17th May, 2007, right after an article which I wrote in Al-Dastour newspaper which had the headline: 'What happens after Moubarak dies?' That day, prison officers escorted me to an area of the jail and I was beaten. I was thrown from a car, beaten on my back, knees, ankles. It was violent. They used their fists. Yes, I remember names. There was a general, not an important person. He was there on that day. As a result, I believe he was awarded a very strong provincial position for what he did to me."
Nour's imprisonment – he was held for 105 days before being jailed from 5th December, 2005, until 18th February, 2009 – annoyed the George W Bush administration which had just been trumpeting the joys of Egyptian democracy; Condoleeza Rice and her State Department spokesman huffed and puffed about how Nour's imprisonment "called into question Egypt's commitment to democracy, freedom and the rule of law." "I pay the price when Rice speaks of me," Nour said. "And I pay the price when she doesn't." Moubarak couldn't have cared less. Bush himself coupled Nour's name with that of Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma a month after Nour's beating in a 2007 speech. Much good did it do. The attack, Nour said, was a message sent in response to his newspaper article. Exactly who it came from he cannot, or will not, say.
From Moubarak's businessman son Gamal, I ask, the ruling National Democratic Party factotum who would be king, the son who swears he does not wish to be president but whose supporters devoutly wish him to inherit the Pharaoh's throne? No, Nour says. It wasn't Gamal. He leaves me to fish through the rest of the Moubarak family for the culprit.
Ask about Gamal, and Dr Nour shakes his head. "I don't have much to say about a man who has no features, no charisma, a man who has not been in any election in his life, who is nevertheless a leader, the decision-maker in an unconstitutional way. He is a president under construction. He is like plastic. He is not human. You can talk about trees and flowers but not something that is made of plastic, it has no life."
Phew, I say. So what does Nour think of Moubarak the father – who, like Gamal, he has met several times – about the president who at 82 has said that he is thinking of standing for president yet again next year? "He is an inexperienced and uneducated man," he replies. "His mind is set in one way. He doesn't have sufficient knowledge. He is a small dictator who became a big dictator as his age increased. He looks very much down on the Egyptian people. But his barber is a nice guy."
But surely, I say, Moubarak can't be that bad. I saw the way he put his arm round old President Hafez Assad of Syria when his son Basil was killed in a car crash near Damascus airport. He seemed a most compassionate man. But Nour is unforgiving.
"I can tell you that a very important thing about his character is that he is very aggressive," he says. "He has no heart. During the 2005 elections, a very well-known member of the party, Talat Sadat (son of assassinated President Anwar Sadat's brother), came to support my campaign. He said one of the best features abut me was that I had a heart. And when I thought about this in prison, I realized that what Talat said was right. Egypt at this critical time needs a president with a heart.
"You know," he says, "I figured out President Moubarak at my very first meeting with him, when he had just taken power. I was 16 and head of the student union in Egypt. I was trying to talk to the president, to ask him to bring back a 1976 law about organising elections to the student union that was cancelled by a new law in 1979. And the president told me: 'We are moving forward – why should we go back three years?' I said I had the signatures of 40,000 students in my favour and he said: 'Are you sure it's 40,000? I will count them one by one.' I couldn't believe it. What kind of president has the time to count 40,000 signatures?"
Dr Nour believes the Muslim Brotherhood, the illegal but tolerated opposition party which lends a mirage of democracy to Egypt's polls, should not be participating in this weekend's parliamentary elections. "They will regret it," he says. "They have got into a fight which the regime wanted, when there will be an election that will be rigged. By participating, they are giving legitimacy to this. Once, when Moubarak was told he had gained 99 per cent in a presidential election, he told his minister: 'This is far too much – take it down a bit!' That's what Moubarak admitted in a newspaper interview."
In the 2005 presidential elections, Nour turned up an hour early to register his name. "I wanted my name on the first ticket," he recalls. "The head of the election committee offered me tea. I said no, I wanted to give in my papers first. So he put my name at the top and gave me a receipt. My people were outside and saw all the candidates but they never saw Moubarak. The Middle East News Agency put out a story, number 36 of the day, that I had submitted my papers first.
"But later on the same day they said President Moubarak had registered first and that I was number two on the ballot. I called the head of the election committee who agreed that he had given me a receipt and that my name should have topped the ballot list. I filed a complaint – there was no response. And I believe President Moubarak never actually applied. Until this day, we believe that Moubarak never filed his papers – and that he is therefore not the real president. We had lots of supporters beaten up outside polling stations. I was told I got 25 per cent of the vote. And they gave me 8 per cent."
Some members of Nour's Ghad party, including a civil engineer called Shadi Taha who is one of his closest advisers, insist that a knock-on-the-door poll in Alexandria indicated Nour had got 80 per cent of the local vote. Well, maybe, I think.
But things look bleak for the man who would be king in next year's presidential election. "There are a lot of obstacles to stop me running," he says. "There's an old 1937 law that [forbids] a civilian to stand for president within six years of serving his term for committing and being convicted of a felony. They don't want any competition in September, 2011. The regime is trying to take away the real opposition. They just want a soft opposition to be a part of that nice play and show the West that everything is normal. I am already forbidden to practice law. I am forbidden to speak in the media. I have no right to sell property or speak in universities or open a bank account. I have had many invitations to talk at American universities but the prosecutor general stopped me from travelling."
Yes, Dr Nour insists, there could be real democracy in Egypt. There was a kind of democracy in 1860, and between 1924 and 1952 there was a liberal constitution. There was a "partial democracy", he says, when the British ruled Egypt. This sounds like a whopper to me. But Dr Nour is unapologetic. "We believe we can see democracy in the future in Egypt because of the past. When we compare it to what we have in Egypt today – when we have no political life at all – we can believe in a real democratic force."