Backstory

A Tale of Two Parties

The incredible story of how Egypt's entrenched regime will stop at nothing to stifle the birth of a liberal opposition movement.

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.

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

Backstory

How Not to Get Played by Ahmadinejad

A reporter's guide to interviewing the Iranian president.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is coming to New York again next week for the annual opening of the U.N. General Assembly. If the past is any guide, he will try to use the U.S. press as a prop to distract from his shaky standing at home.

Since he was first elected in 2005, the Iranian president has perfected the art of slipping and sliding around even the most seasoned interviewers. Typically, he answers questions with questions and deflects criticism by attacking the United States or Israel.

On previous trips, Ahmadinejad has insisted that Iran has "real elections" -- despite copious evidence to the contrary -- and that Iran's economy does "not face serious problems," unlike the U.S. economy (another dubious assertion).

Reporters need to be armed with in-depth knowledge of Iran's economy, politics, and society -- and even then they may have difficulty getting Ahmadinejad to admit the truth. When I first interviewed him in 2006, he simply denied that the number of educated youth seeking visas to leave Iran had risen significantly since his election and that wealthy Iranians had moved billions of dollars to Dubai (both facts were true).

In advance of this year's trip, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran has prepared a press guide with suggested questions, useful background on issues and prior interviews, and examples of what to avoid. The organization urges reporters to focus on Iranian human rights abuses in the aftermath of last year's disputed presidential election and remind Ahmadinejad of Iran's obligations as a signatory of international conventions on human rights.

The guide advises interviewers to be as specific as possible to make it harder for the Iranian leader to go off on tangents and indulge in generalities. Among suggested questions: Why did Ahmadinejad give another high position to former Tehran prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi, who has been indicted in connection with the detention of young demonstrators at Kahrizak prison last year? Many there were tortured and raped, and at least four young men died, including the son of a prominent official.

Instead of facing punishment, Mortazavi was made head of an anti-smuggling task force and was seated prominently at ceremonies marking the end of Ramadan led by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Mehdi Khalaji, an Iranian scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says interviewers need to be blunt, even rude, to "make Ahmadinejad stop and think. Ask him why he has so many problems with clerics in what is supposed to be an Islamic republic?" Khalaji, a former seminarian in Iran, suggests, "Ask him why the clerics hate him."

As the Iranian government has moved to crush the reformist Green Movement, divisions have grown within the ruling conservative camp. Many clerics object to Ahmadinejad for promoting a superstitious folk interpretation of Shiite Islam and for increasing the power of the Revolutionary Guard over the clergy.

Others oppose him for giving high-level posts to an in-law, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, who openly champions Iranian nationalism over Islam -- a no-no in the Islamic Republic. After last year's election, Ahmadinejad named Mashaei Iran's first vice president. When the supreme leader objected, Ahmadinejad made Mashaei his chief of staff. Recently, the president appointed Mashaei his special Middle East envoy. Rumor has it that Ahmadinejad wants Mashaei -- whose son is married to Ahmadinejad's daughter -- to run for president in 2013 in part so that Ahmadinejad can seek a third term in 2017. Iran's Constitution forbids more than two consecutive presidential terms.

Khalaji suggests that reporters ask Ahmadinejad: "Is it true that Mashaei wants to be president and you want to be Iran's [Vladimir] Putin?"

Mehdi Jedinia, an Iranian-American journalist who previously worked for the Mehr news agency in Tehran, says someone should ask Ahmadinejad how he would manage if he didn't have Israel or the United States to blame for Iran's problems.

Jedinia also suggests asking Ahmadinejad why he has encouraged Iranian women to have more children given the country's economic woes, including high unemployment.

Several analysts have urged reporters to avoid questions about the Holocaust, which rarely produce anything new and put Ahmadinejad on comfortable ground. Focusing on current issues has worked better; most recently, international pressure led Iranian authorities to free American hiker Sarah Shourd and convinced Iran not to stone to death Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a woman convicted of adultery.

Reporters who do not have to fear imprisonment or exile for doing their jobs -- unlike the more than 30 journalists still in Iranian jails and the hundreds forced to flee Iran since June 2009 -- have a duty to ask Ahmadinejad tough questions, says Hadi Ghaemi, director of the rights group that produced the press guide.

"Inside Iran, journalists and human rights defenders do not have the opportunity to hold him accountable," Ghaemi said. "When he travels abroad we all have an obligation to do so."

AFP/Getty Images