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.