Saturday, March 04, 2006

Persecution of a Democrat

The Washington Post
Saturday, March 4, 2006; A16

IN CAIRO last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she had spoken "candidly" in her meetings about the imprisonment of liberal democratic reformer Ayman Nour, which she called a "setback." Apparently President Hosni Mubarak wasn't impressed. Within days of Ms. Rice's visit, prosecutors summoned Mr. Nour from prison to interrogate him on a host of new charges.

These are even more ludicrous than the bogus forgery rap that the regime used in December to sentence Mr. Nour to five years at hard labor. Among the 17 new "crimes" prosecutors raised during a six-hour session Monday was Mr. Nour's financing of a statue of a famous Egyptian composer, which his accusers labeled an insult to Islam. Mr. Nour's wife, journalist Gameela Ismail, was also summoned by prosecutors: Incredibly, she was accused of assaulting some of the security thugs sent to disrupt demonstrations by Mr. Nour's supporters.

A year ago, under pressure from the Bush administration, Mr. Mubarak announced that he would allow opposition candidates to challenge him for reelection, and he released Mr. Nour, the 41-year-old founder of the Tomorrow Party, from prison to run against him. Now, sensing that Mr. Bush's democracy agenda is flagging, Mr. Mubarak is ruthlessly stamping out any semblance of moderate, secular opposition to his autocracy, so that the only alternative in Egypt will be Islamic fundamentalism. Mr. Nour's Tomorrow Party has been destroyed and other moderate parties refused legal registration, even as the Muslim Brotherhood was allowed to seat 88 of its members in parliament. Last month three senior civil judges who have been pressing for reforms, and who had publicly denounced fraud in last year's voting, were stripped of immunity and threatened with criminal charges.

Mr. Mubarak has meanwhile relentlessly pursued his persecution of Mr. Nour, who received 8 percent of the vote in the presidential election and is the greatest secular rival of Gamal Mubarak, who is being groomed to succeed his father. Lawyers for Mr. Nour have appealed his December conviction to Egypt's highest court, which in previous political cases has overruled the security court judges who act at Mr. Mubarak's bidding. There are plenty of grounds for a ruling in the democrats' favor: Among many other things, the trial judge ignored the fact that one of Mr. Nour's principal accusers recanted in court, testifying that he had been pressured into lying by the secret police. The supreme court ruling is expected within the next couple of weeks; thus the sudden appearance of a raft of new charges that could allow Mr. Mubarak to keep his adversary in prison even if his conviction is overturned.

What's striking about this single-minded campaign is that Mr. Mubarak presses it even though the Bush administration has made clear that it will damage U.S.-Egyptian relations. Mr. Nour's imprisonment already prompted the suspension of free-trade negotiations. Evidently the 77-year-old Mr. Mubarak believes the elimination of a moderate and pro-Western challenger to his son is more important than good relations with an American president in his second term. He also calculates that Mr. Bush's support for Mr. Nour and democracy in Egypt isn't shared by Congress, which soon will consider whether to continue $1.8 billion in annual aid to Egypt.

Congress should prove him wrong. Rather than continuing to subsidize Mr. Mubarak's corrupt regime, legislators should insist that any U.S. aid be channeled to civil society groups and democratic reformers such as Mr. Nour. America's support should go to those in the Middle East who are fighting for the cause of liberal democracy and not to autocrats who blatantly persecute them.

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