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A Dissident Declines His Obama Invite

CAIRO-- "I have traces of torture everywhere on my body," says Ayman Nour. Late on a smoldering hot afternoon, Nour is sitting in his well-cooled living room on the top floor of a Zamalek apartment building, surrounded by a display of fine antique furniture and elegant classical art. An oversized painting on one wall features a gaggle of Egyptian politicians, including Nour, outside the national parliament, where Nour served until his arrest and imprisonment by Hosni Mubarak in 2005. Nour's supposed offense was forging registration signatures for his presidential candidacy--but his true crime was surely in placing second in the 2005 presidential election. Although Nour only won 7% percent of the vote, it was a show of strength in that farcical "democratic" exercise--and clearly too much for the comfort of Egypt's pharaoh-general.

That 2005 showing is a reason why Nour's Ghad ("Tomorrow") party is, in theory, the kind of democratic movement the U.S. could be enthusiastic about: The Muslim Brothers may be a relatively toothless version of their former militant selves, but no American president will eagerly promote the fortunes of Hamas-aligned Islamists. In person, Nour presents an appealing profile, rare for Egyptian politics: a charismatic and thoughtful liberal. "It is a fallacy that the regime in Egypt propagates to the Western media that the only alternative is the Muslim Brotherhood," Nour says, calling himself Egypt's "best hope for a centrist civil state."

But rather than suck up to the new American president, Nour expresses little love for Barack Obama. Never mind that, during the 2008 campaign, Nour wrote an open letter to Obama from prison, and says he got a reply saluting him for "paying the price of freedom." Or that Obama's election seems to have brought Nour's unexpected release from prison in February, an apparent gesture of openness by Mubarak to the new American president. Nour also says that he has received an invitation to tomorrow's speech, sent by the government, though presumably not at the initiative of the government that until recently imprisoned and allegedly tortured him. 

Yet when I saw him yesterday, Nour--looking smart-casual in jeans, a blazer and brown loafers--had few kind words for Obama. The president's reticence to push Mubarak about democracy, Nour says, has been "a huge disappointment, not only from Egypt's perspective but for reformers all over the world. It's not in line with what he promised during the campaign, or with his inaugural speech on January 20." In particular, Nour called the recent 60 percent reduction of U.S. aid for democracy promotion in Egypt a "grave" move, and said that a new approach of channeling that aid through the government, rather than sending it directly to NGO-style groups. would be "as if it didn't come" once pocket-lining officials are done with it. The result will be continued state of repression that allows terrorism and extremism to flourish, he warns.

Unlike George W. Bush, whose cajoling of Mubarak made possible Nour's 2005 candidacy, and who name-checked Nour during a 2007 speech about imprisoned political dissidents, Obama hasn't mentioned Nour's name in public. Nor has the Obama White House contacted him privately. Nevertheless, Nour is pressing on with another bid for president in 2011. By then he expects that Hosni Mubarak will be out of the picture, and that Mubarak's son can't fill his shoes; Gamal Mubarak has "no credibility," Nour says. But few people I've spoken with believe he's retained much of his old political punch. That may explain the widespread doubts about his dramatic claim to have been attacked last month by two regime thugs who supposedly burned his face with a flaming aerosol can. (I myself saw no sign of burns.) After all,  while Mubarak would be rather stupid to attack Nour days before Obama's visit, the episode certainly raised Nour's profile just as hordes of Western media descended on Cairo. Case in point: Nour was more than 20 minutes late for our meeting, because he was finishing an interview with the BBC.

Nour says he doesn't mind returning to prison if necessary. (Indeed, it's possible that he wants to return to prison, where he has suggested he can have more impact.) "Running is 2005 was my choice," he says. "Running in 2011 is my destiny." But he'll have to do it without the backing of an Obama administration clearly more concerned about stability than the ideal of democracy. Which is why Nour won't be using his invite to tomorrow's speech. "I want to watch from home, where I can use the remote control if I don't like it," he says. He's had enough of Hosni Mubarak's hospitality anyway.

--Michael Crowley

Rumor of the Day: Mubarak's Health, by Michael Crowley (6/2/09)

Muslim Brothers Make the Obama Cut, by Michael Crowley (6/2/09)

Obamania in Cairo, by Michael Crowley (6/1/09)

Report: Obama to Speak at Cairo University, by Michael Crowley (5/26/09)