Democracy Suffers in Egypt After Election

Egyptian journalist Hisham Kassem talks with Steve Inskeep about the status of Ayman Nour. Nour is a pro-democracy candidate who challenged Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in last year's elections. He is in now jail after being charged with fraud by the government.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

American officials made more positive statements just last year about Egypt. President Hosni Mubarak promised multi-party elections there in 2005. But his most prominent challenger ended up in prison, pro-democracy activist Ayman Nour is still serving a five-year sentence for a supposed election fraud. Recently, Ayman Nour lost an appeal, so we called a man who knows him. Hisham Kassem is the publisher of al-Masri al-Yawm , an independent newspaper that, in Arabic, means the Egyptian Today. When he answered our call yesterday, he was just receiving news of another blow to Ayman Nour's party.

Mr. HISHAM KASSEM (Publisher, al-Masri al-Yawm Newspaper): This morning, 3 AM, the Nour Cultural Centre, which has been the place out of which Ayman Nour operates, was burnt to the ground.

INSKEEP: And this happens at a time when Ayman Nour is still in prison. He's lost his appeal.

Mr. KASSEM: Yes.

INSKEEP: Does he have any other options?

Mr. KASSEM: None. Not only is he going to do five years in prison, he will be deprived for six years after the end of his sentence from most of his rights as a citizen.

INSKEEP: Have you or anyone from your paper been able to speak with him recently?

Mr. KASSEM: I visited him about a couple of months ago.

INSKEEP: What did you talk about?

Mr. KASSEM: He complained about the fact that his pen and paper had been confiscated, and he's not being allowed to write. In fact, they've confiscated some legal memorandum, which he had written in order to go to court and get a court ruling stating his Constitutional right to be able to write. But I haven't seen him since the ruling was - has become final.

INSKEEP: Now, outside the prison, let's talk a little bit about the party that Ayman Nour founded.

Mr. KASSEM: Yes.

INSKEEP: You mentioned that, as we speak, we've just learned that the cultural center associated with him has been burned. Speaking more broadly, how has that political party been treated?

Mr. KASSEM: It's been systematically damaged. I remember the first general assembly we had when there was a promise of a real party that would be out there to get some commotion in the Egyptian political life, to show some challenge to Mubarak's ruling party, which has been in power since its inception in 1979. And you go right now and see the situation; it's really sad. The place has really dried up. A lot of people fled because of security harassment, and I simply believe that this has been deliberate and systematic destruction of the party by the Mubarak regime.

INSKEEP: Which gets to a bit of a mystery here. It's clear that if you're willing to challenge President Mubarak, you can end up in prison. But, at the same time, there does seem to be an increase in opposition in Egypt. Opposition leaders have more seats in the parliament. Your newspaper is running. How would you describe the movement toward democracy in your country right now?

Mr. KASSEM: It's a country in transition. I mean, three years ago none of this existed. However, the main problem is that the regime is not committed. Basically, after the international community did almost an about face, vis à vie the regime and it's oppressive measures, they've had to open up a little. But the problem remains that there is no commitment on the regime's part.

INSKEEP: No commitment even though they've made these announcements, and made claims of progress?

Mr. KASSEM: There's more announcements than there is anything on the ground.

INSKEEP: One of the most powerful opposition groups where you are is the Muslim Brotherhood, which...

Mr. KASSEM: That's right.

INSKEEP: ...can be described as an Islamist group.

Mr. KASSEM: Yes.

INSKEEP: So is that a legitimate fear, that if you had a truly free election in Egypt that's who you might end up with?

Mr. KASSEM: The country is really left between two options. The mosque, because the government cannot close mosques, and so any Islamic party or movement has the convenience of thousands of general assemblies across the country every week. As opposed to political parties who are practically banned from getting on the street.

Now, again, with the deteriorating regime, this situation threatens that Egypt will move from an authoritarian regime into a theocracy.

INSKEEP: Now, the slightly paranoid theory, and perhaps not too paranoid theory, is that President Mubarak puts down secular opposition groups so that the only opposition left is Islamists. And people in the west, who support him financially, have no choice. It's either Hosni Mubarak or a bunch of people who will be enemies of yours.

Mr. KASSEM: Yes. This is not a theory. This is the reality. And this is what's happening on the ground here.

INSKEEP: That President Mubarak uses the Islamists to...

Mr. KASSEM: Exactly. Basically he uses them as a jack in the box, to scare everybody away. You see? Warning them that democracy is going to bring out hostile governments to them, and this is certainly not the case.

INSKEEP: We've been speaking with Hisham Kassem. He's the editor of al-Masri al-Yawm, The Egyptian Today, in translation. That's an independent political newspaper in Cairo. Thanks very much.

Mr. KASSEM: My pleasure. Thank you.

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