The incredible story of how Egypt's entrenched regime will stop at nothing to stifle the birth of a liberal opposition movement.
- By Eric TragerEric Trager is the Esther K. Wagner fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
In June 2005, at the height of the Bush administration’s "Freedom Agenda," U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice put her foot down. In a ringing speech at the American University in Cairo, Rice called on Egypt’s regime, as well as its counterparts in Saudi Arabia and Syria, to "make a strategic choice" and embrace democracy.
"For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region, here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither," Rice said.
Just five months earlier, Egypt had arrested Ayman Nour, the country’s most promising liberal politician, for allegedly forging signatures on his party’s application papers. Nour’s real crime, it seems, was presenting a credible alternative to Gamal Mubarak, the president’s dashing young son, who is widely assumed to be in line for the throne when his 82-year-old father finally retires or kicks the bucket.
Nour was eventually convicted and sentenced to five years in prison, and largely forgotten. The parliamentary elections held later that year — far from being free and fair, as Rice had demanded — were marred by violence and widespread fraud. Now, as Egyptians gird themselves for yet another stolen election later this month, the incredible tale of Nour’s Ghad party serves as a potent reminder of the creative lengths President Hosni Mubarak’s regime will go to sideline its political opponents.
You see, there are now not one, but two Ghad parties. One, the remnants of Nour’s Ghad party, is not a legal entity. It is "boycotting" the elections, which it couldn’t contest anyway. And there’s a second Ghad party — a legal one with close ties to the regime — that will be running 31 candidates in districts nationwide. As a consequence, there is ample confusion among Egyptian voters and Washington analysts alike.
How did this happen? Egypt’s powerful State Security bureau does not generally explain its actions to the public. So the following story was reconstructed from dozens of interviews, over the course of this past summer, with members of both parties, as well as scores of outside analysts and political observers. What emerges is a fascinating case study of authoritarianism in the democratic age.
The original Ghad party was founded in late 2003, when a group of liberal activists and disenchanted members of the Wafd, Egypt’s not-so-glorious nationalist opposition party, began drafting a platform under the leadership of Nour, a lawyer who was then a Wafd representative in parliament. Their aim was to provide a serious, pro-democratic alternative to the regime, and their central ideas emphasized ending Egypt’s stifling emergency laws and promoting personal freedoms and the consolidation of a civil state, as opposed to an Islamic one.
The early going was rough. After the regime-controlled Committee on Parties’ Affairs denied Ghad’s first three applications for a license, Ghad sued in administrative court. To save itself the embarrassment of losing a case, the regime offered Nour a deal: end the litigation in exchange for a party license. Nour agreed, and Ghad received its license on Oct. 28, 2004. The license came with an implied stipulation: Ghad would participate within the regime’s political structures and avoid criticizing the government too harshly.
Yet Ghad immediately signaled its refusal to play by the regime’s rules. At its first party convention in November 2004, Ghad appointed Ibrahim Eissa editor in chief of the party’s newspaper. This rankled the regime: Eissa was a prominent, biting critic of the president, and the government had shuttered his newspaper, al-Dustour, in 1998 to silence him.
Next, Ghad circulated its proposed constitution, which called for expanding parliamentary powers at the expense of Mubarak’s authority. When Ghad submitted its constitution to parliament, Mubarak declared its leaders "traitors."
Finally, Ghad courted the international community. On Jan. 26, 2005, Nour met with a delegation organized by the Council on Foreign Relations and headed by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.* For the regime, this was the last straw. Fearing that Ghad’s actions would catalyze increased foreign pressure to liberalize, the regime stripped Nour’s parliamentary immunity and arrested him on those dubious forgery charges on Jan. 29. Then, with Nour temporarily imprisoned, the regime tapped its allies within Ghad to foment divisions and alter the party’s course.
One of these allies was Ghad assistant chair Rageb Helal Hemeda. Hemeda had developed a strong working relationship with State Security during the 1980s, when he spent six years in and out of prison for his involvement in the radical Islamist organization al-Takfir wa’al-Hijra. These domestic intelligence connections shaped Hemeda’s quick rise from selling fuul sandwiches out of a cart in downtown Cairo to being elected to parliament in 1995, at age 34. As a founding Ghad leader, Hemeda strengthened his relationship with State Security by relaying information on Ghad’s activities. After Nour’s arrest, Hemeda became critical in the regime’s bid to destroy the party: He disseminated negative information about Nour, including allegations of Nour’s financial malfeasance and "proof" of his forgery, and encouraged Ghad members to bolt.
The party’s vice chairman, Moussa Mustafa Moussa, was also vital to the regime’s efforts. A multi millionaire businessman whose brother serves on the influential Policy Committee of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and whose brother-in-law is an NDP parliamentarian, Moussa was abroad at the time of Nour’s arrest. But when he returned to Cairo on Feb. 8, State Security officers interrogated him at the airport for three days. Upon being released, Moussa sought to seize the party from Nour. He immediately removed Eissa as editor of the Ghad newspaper and replaced him with a journalist tied to State Security, thereby signaling his willingness to cooperate with the regime.
On Feb. 26, 2005, Mubarak responded to growing international pressure for political reform by announcing Egypt’s first-ever multi candidate presidential election. Nour announced his candidacy from his prison cell and, upon being released on March 12, began his campaign. Yet his party was already slipping away. Those members aligning with Moussa and Hemeda avoided Ghad activities. Meanwhile, Hemeda’s own parliamentary campaign literature featured his photo underneath Mubarak’s, with the slogan reading, "We’re all behind you, O leader!"
Still, Nour’s presidential campaign drew significant international attention. His liberal rhetoric — and the large crowds that flocked to his events — echoed elections held earlier that year in the Palestinian Authority, Iraq, and Lebanon. Even after Nour finished a distant second to Mubarak in the September election with 7 percent of the vote, many observers expected that he would lead a revitalized liberal opposition and push for further reform.
Yet this optimism ignored the new political reality taking shape in Cairo. Shortly after the election, Nour fired Moussa, Hemeda, and two other leaders from the party. In response, the two men held their own party conference under Ghad’s banner, populating the gathering with Moussa’s factory workers, Hemeda’s street gangs, and NDP members — many of whom thought they would be attending a rally for Mubarak. This second "Ghad" party elected Moussa chairman and signaled its loyalty to the regime by calling for Gamal Mubarak to be the next president of Egypt in the inaugural issue of its own "Ghad" newspaper. In November’s parliamentary elections, this "Ghad" faction ran 65 candidates — often against candidates from Nour’s own Ghad party. Ultimately, only one of the 265 combined Ghad candidates prevailed: Hemeda, whose election was viewed as a reward from the regime.
On Dec. 24, 2005, an Egyptian court convicted Nour of the forgery and sentenced him to five years of hard labor. Many of Nour’s remaining supporters fled the party, while Moussa and Hemeda began solidifying their pro-regime party under the Ghad banner.
Over the next two years, Moussa pursued a complicated legal strategy in multiple courts, ultimately attaining Ghad’s party license in June 2007. When the original, pro-Nour Ghad faction — or what remained of it — refused to shut down its activities, Moussa’s now-legalized Ghad party took matters into its own hands. On Nov. 6, 2008, Hemeda’s street gangs attempted to occupy the pro-Nour faction’s headquarters; the ensuing skirmish ended with Nour’s headquarters in flames, as one of Hemeda’s henchmen tackled a fireman who had been called to the scene. Thus, when the regime granted Nour an early release from prison as a goodwill gesture to U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration in February 2009, he returned to a party that had been neutralized.
Indeed, even though most Egyptians still associate the "Ghad" name with Nour and his pro-democratic message, a vote for Ghad is, in fact, a vote for a pro-Mubarak party.
Over the past year, Moussa’s official hold on the official Ghad party has strengthened. In June, he won a seat in the Shura Council, Egypt’s upper house, receiving nearly 120,000 votes in an election that even his allies admit was rigged by the regime. Two months prior, Moussa’s party scored a major propaganda victory when Ismail Ismail, the brother of Nour’s estranged wife, aligned with Moussa. Ismail is now running for Nour’s former parliamentary seat, and his victory would further weaken the link between the Ghad name and its liberal founder.
Meanwhile, Nour has fought to remain relevant. He tours the country pressing for reform, and regularly holds press conferences touting his Ghad party’s plans, including its election boycott. "We did not boycott to stay at home, but we will be working on the streets," Nour recently told the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "In just one year and five months, I visited 330 villages, cities, centers, hamlets, and sports centers. This unprecedented record of visits is part of a street campaign."
Yet Nour’s persistence — though commendable — is ultimately a political sideshow. After all, he is calling for changes that he has no power to implement and boycotting elections from which his party is already banned.
It is tempting to believe that, if Washington placed enough pressure on Cairo to liberalize, this reality could change. But Ghad’s story demonstrates that the Mubarak regime’s commitment to stifling its domestic opponents far outweighs the West’s commitment to promoting democratization. After all, undercutting the remarkably devious tactics through which the regime stifles even its most prominent opponents would require Washington to maintain an uncommonly high level of involvement in Egypt’s internal affairs. And, as Obama suggested in his June 2009 Cairo address, the promotion of political reform is secondary to other priorities, including undercutting violent Islamist radicalism and promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace.
In effect, five years after the "Freedom Agenda," the United States and its allies have returned to doing exactly what Rice decried: pursuing regional stability at the expense of democracy.
Editor’s Note: The original version of this article stated that Ayman Nour met with a U.S. congressional task force headed by Madeleine Albright. In fact, it was a delegation sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations. The article has been updated to reflect this fact.