CAIRO, Egypt -- In a verdict that came as a slap to democracy advocates, one of Egypt's most prominent and unflinching opposition politicians was sentenced yesterday to five years in prison on charges of forgery.
The imprisonment of Ayman Nour, an outspoken former legislator who recently ran an intense election campaign against longtime President Hosni Mubarak, is seen as a means to silence a potential threat to the ruling regime. The verdict drew a swift and forceful rebuke from Washington.
Nour's conviction "calls into question Egypt's commitment to democracy, freedom, and the rule of law," the White House said in a statement.
Nour's lawyer, Amin Salim, told reporters, "This is a political trial to destroy Ayman Nour." The verdict will be appealed to a higher court, his wife and lawyers said.
Yesterday's verdict was the latest blow to the foundering dream of creating a third way in Arab politics - a progressive, democratic political movement that is neither Islamist nor a repressive autocracy. For many Egyptians, the imprisonment of the ailing Nour was a disheartening epilogue to parliamentary elections this year that placed nearly 20 percent of the legislative seats under the control of the Muslim Brotherhood.
"This is a very dangerous signal from the government - that the secular opposition doesn't have the same opportunity to exist or grow as the Islamist movements," said Hafez Abu Saeda, president of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. "In spite of the government talking about reform, secular leaders are in a very bad situation."
After a quarter-century in power, Mubarak opened the presidential elections this year to competition from opposition candidates, including Nour. But critics have claimed that the election law was tailored to ensure that nobody but Mubarak stood a chance of winning.
Still, some analysts believe Nour, 41, posed a more serious threat to Mubarak than the more popular Islamists - despite his comparative lack of followers. Nour tapped into the same constituency that forms the backbone of Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party: secular, educated, Western-friendly, middle class. And unlike the Islamist opposition, a candidate such as Nour could be taken seriously by the U.S. administration and Europe.
Nour has said the regime views him as a threat to the political aspirations of Gamal Mubarak, the president's son and a rising star within the ruling party. As long as Mubarak can keep secular opposition tamped down, Nour reasoned, he'll be able to convince the West that his regime is the only viable government, and that democracy must not be rushed.
"They'll put an end to the dreams of all liberals," said Gamila Ismael, Nour's wife, standing in the courtroom a few minutes before the verdict was announced. "They will prove to the West it's either [Mubarak] or the Muslim Brotherhood."
The wooden benches of the courtroom were packed with spectators- all of them men, most of them burly and dressed in worn suits. They wouldn't say who they were. Nour's supporters were convinced that they were plainclothes police and that their presence signaled that their party leader would be hauled off to prison.
A diabetic who needs insulin, Nour had been hospitalized in recent days after going on a hunger strike to protest his treatment in jail. He looked puffy and pale as he stood in the courtroom cage.
The judge has presided over other controversial cases, including the 2002 conviction of democracy advocate Saad Eddin Ibrahim, another secular critic of the government. That verdict was tossed out later by an appeals court.
Nour's conviction gives him a criminal record - thereby putting him permanently out of the running for president. The Tomorrow Party has appointed a replacement, former Egyptian diplomat Nagui el Ghatrifi, to lead.
"We'll stick to our program, of course," Ghatrifi said. "We don't believe in any gradual reforms. These are all lies and maneuvers. We have to address the head of the despotic regime."
In the street outside, where dozens of die-hard supporters had spent a bone-chilling night sleeping on wool blankets, a wail rose from the crowd at news of Nour's imprisonment. Demonstrators hurled rocks and sticks at riot police who blocked the entry to the courthouse.
"Why all these soldiers?" the crowd chanted. "Are you scared of us? Are you in a war or what?"
The crowd thickened to several hundred and moved in an impromptu march through Cairo.
Megan K. Stack writes for the Los Angeles Times.