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Egyptian opposition politician accuses government of smear tactics

CAIRO, Egypt—Egyptian opposition politician Ayman Nour charged in an interview last week that the government of President Hosni Mubarak is using intimidation and dirty tricks to undercut his presidential aspirations.

Nour, a parliament member whose February arrest on forgery charges brought worldwide condemnation, said the government is trying to portray him as an agent of the United States and disrupt his campaign events.

In recent weeks, articles ridiculing and threatening Nour have appeared in Cairo newspapers. One last week portrayed him with a disfigured face in an apparent allusion to the poisoning of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko during his opposition campaign last year.

"They are very scared," Nour said in a 90-minute interview with Knight Ridder in his spacious Cairo home.

"This campaign will be won by persistence," he said. "It won't be about equal opportunities. It will be about persistence."

The U.S.-backed Mubarak pledged in late February to amend Egypt's constitution to permit the first multiparty elections of his 24-year rule. A presidential election is expected in September.

But it remains unclear who'll be permitted to run and under what conditions, something parliament will decide next month. Nour would be barred from office if convicted on the forgery charges, which he denies. His trial is set to begin on June 28.

Nour, 40, and his al Ghad or "Tomorrow" party were relatively unknown even in Egypt until his arrest and 42-day detention. Washington protested, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice canceled a planned visit here.

Some Egyptian officials and government allies concede that the move was a major blunder that's tarnished Egypt's image and given Nour far more attention than he would have had otherwise.

"By imprisoning him, they made of him a hero. They actually elevated his status. Nobody cared about Ayman Nour before," said Bahgat Korany, an independent analyst and political science professor at the American University in Cairo.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit said in an interview last Wednesday: "Whether it was a mistake or not, it is a criminal investigation. It has to be conducted." He added: "It is not an instigated thing."

The government charges that Nour forged some of the 5,200 signatures his party submitted when it was established six months ago.

Asked about the charge, he gave a long, heavy sigh and waved to his 14-year-old boy, one of two sons, nearby.

"They're accusing me of forging the applications of my wife and my father and the leaders of my party," he said, pointing out that only 50 signatures are needed on a party application.

"I'm a lawyer. I'm a professor of law. I know the law. There's no reason for me to do this."

Nour said he was beaten in jail.

Since he was released on March 12, he said, the government has tried to smear him, mainly by painting him as a tool of America and President Bush's push for Middle East democracy.

His wife and adviser, journalist Gamila Ismaili, said that after her husband held a dinner for former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, banners appeared on Cairo buildings proclaiming, "Son of Madeleine, Tell Us Who You Are."

Nour said Egyptian security services tried to prevent him from campaigning on foot, ordering him and his supporters to get back in their cars.

"It's a terrible start to the campaign. ... They asked me to get permission to walk, something I've never heard of before," he said.

Not all of Nour's claims could be independently verified.

But several little-known newspapers for sale on Cairo sidewalks last week contain pages of attacks on him, including cartoons in which he's shown taking American and Israeli money. Other editions, which Nour and his aides showed to a reporter, allege that Cairo authorities have decided to demolish the building where his home is located.

It's unclear who's behind the media attacks on Nour, although his campaign suspects Egypt's security services.

Hossam Labib, a government spokesman, said the newspapers are part of Egypt's freewheeling press. Mubarak is also attacked in print constantly, he said.

The attacks appear to be having a mixed impact.

Independent political parties are weak in Egypt, and some on Cairo's streets haven't even heard of Nour.

"We don't know what the truth is," said veterinarian Tamer Mansour, 35, smoking a water pipe in an outdoor cafe downtown. "We heard that he was taking money ... that America was funding him. We don't know how."

Street vendor Nasif Samir, whose newsstand selection includes some of the anti-Nour papers, said the would-be presidential candidate has a reputation as a man of the people.

"All good people are fought. It's expected. It's not a strange thing," he said.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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