Egyptian politics ‘like a dialogue between deaf people’, says Ayman Nour

Controversial politician has been accused by liberal media and political groups as being a Muslim Brotherhood sympathiser and a fair-weather politician on the hunt for greater power. But he denies the claims, saying he is also a critic of president Mohammed Morsi.

Ayman Nour submitted candidacy papers for last year's presidential elections, just seven years after becoming the first politician to run against former president Hosni Mubarak.
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CAIRO // A huge painting in the living room of Ayman Nour goes to the heart of why he is one of the more intriguing and controversial politicians in Egypt today.

The 3.5-metre tableau shows groups of famous liberal politicians from the past 100 years, many of them now deceased, standing in front of Egypt's parliament building. It features Saad Zaghloul, the founder of the Al Wafd Party and a former prime minister, and Fuad Serag Eddin, another veteran Wafd politician.

In the centre is Mr Nour leaning close and whispering to Fathi Sorour, one of Hosni Mubarak's closest aides and the very man that revoked Mr Nour's parliamentary immunity in 2005 so that he could be jailed.

"I kept it because it shows history," Mr Nour, 48, said during an interview on Thursday. "I may not agree with some of the characters in it, but it helps me to remember what has happened in my life, the ups and downs. Sometimes it helps me see things clearer."

Lately, Mr Nour has been in one of the down periods. He has been accused by liberal media and political groups as being a Muslim Brotherhood sympathiser and a fair-weather politician on the hunt for greater power, no matter how he achieves it.

The most polarising example of what his opponents describe as his chameleon nature was his hosting of a secret dinner at his penthouse apartment this month on the tiny island of Zamalek with Khairat Al Shater, the deputy head of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Amr Moussa, a liberal opposition leader and former foreign minister of Egypt.

The meeting was controversial because the National Salvation Front, an umbrella group of political parties that oppose President Mohammed Morsi and his Islamist supporters, has refused meetings with the Brotherhood and officials until the government meets demands for a new unity government, amendments to the constitution and more political openness.

When media reports of the meeting emerged, Mr Moussa lashed out at Mr Nour as the source of the leak.

Mr Nour was also among the politicians embroiled in a diplomatic incident over a hydroelectric dam being built by Ethiopia that Egypt fears will reduce the flow of the Nile. During a meeting that was inadvertently broadcast on Egyptian television, he called for Egypt to leak plans for a military strike on Ethiopia to pressure Addis Ababa to scale the project back.

Nonplussed in his trademark outfit - all black save for a white seersucker jacket, Cohiba cigar and rectangular glasses - Mr Nour described the accusations against him as part of a conspiracy wrought by remnants the Mubarak regime.

"They say I am a Muslim Brotherhood supporter, but I criticise the president all the time," he said. "There is a group of people who were servants of the old regime who still want to take revenge on me. What is being written about me is not just lies, but terrible, awful contradictions to the truth."

Mr Nour is no stranger to Egyptian politics. The son and grandson of Egyptian parliamentarians, he entered politics in the early 1990s with the New Wafd Party. He broke away in 2001 to create Al Ghad Party, or Tomorrow Party. But his true entry into the limelight came in 2005 when he became the first person to run against Mubarak in presidential elections.

He placed a distant second, winning just 7 per cent of the vote in elections widely believed to have been fixed by the Mubarak regime, but what came next assured his place in Egypt's troubled history with democracy. Soon after Mr Nour's defeat, Mubarak's government accused him of forging signatures on election documents. He was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison, losing control of the Al Ghad party in the process.

He spent two years in prison, securing a medical release because of his diabetes, but when he came home to his Zamalek apartment he was confronted with the same huge painting in his living room. There he was talking to Mr Sorour, the man who helped send him to prison.

Expecting to feel anger, he instead found himself "cleansed of hate" by his prison experience, Mr Nour said.

"The crisis of prison made it possible for me to see things better and not hold onto negative things."

He applies the same lesson to Egypt's latest problems. When listening to Mr Morsi's speech on Wednesday night, he felt that the president "was full of anger and unforgiveness".

The whole country was wracked by this kind of debilitating emotional turbulence, he said.

"The January 25th revolution was a beautiful dream, but now it has turned into a nightmare," he said. "The most disturbing thing is everyone has become more extreme and more willing to break the law. The rhetoric is filled with insults. Even families are split. It's like a dialogue between deaf people."

Eight months after Mubarak's resignation, Mr Nour appeared on course to finally take a greater role in Egyptian politics with a new party, Al Ghad Al Thawra, but the group only won two of the 498 seats in the new parliament because many liberals were suspicious of his associations with Brotherhood figures.

Nonetheless, Mr Nour remains a frequent commentator in the media, sometimes for controversy but also for his pithy predictions.

A month before the 2011 uprising, Mr Nour remembers saying that "Egypt was pregnant in its eighth month" and that the baby would be a "revolution".

On Thursday afternoon, before the mass protests scheduled for tomorrow, he said that "Egypt has a false pregnancy and its possible that it will lead to the death of the mother and the child".