It is difficult to watch hope die.
That is what I saw in the faces of the men and women who were openly weeping outside the court that sentenced Ayman Nour on Saturday to five years in prison.
Many of them had spent the night outside that court in the chilly Cairo night, awaiting the conclusion of a forgery case which that has clearly aimed all along to teach a lesson to the young liberal politician who shook up Egyptian politics this year.
They awoke to an army of security forces surrounding the building and the bitter realization that a year that had begun with the promising winds of change in Egypt was drawing to a cold and confusing close.
The message was clear to the stunned residents of the neighbourhood that surrounds the court also. Judging from the hundreds of riot police, helmets and batons at the ready, you would have thought a terrorist was on trial inside that court, not the leader of a political party who came second in our first contested presidential elections in September.
Perhaps Ayman Nour posed a greater danger to the Egyptian government than terrorism. The latter they are accustomed to brushing off with the facile claim that terrorism is an international problem that isn’t just limited to Egypt. But what could they say to brush off Ayman Nour?
The danger of Nour was that he understood politics and he played it well.
Regardless of whether we support his politics or not, we all should be weeping along with Nour’s Ghad Party members because the sentence passed down on him was a sentence passed down on anyone who dares to stick their neck out and challenge the system in Egypt. It was a prison term passed down on those who demand to be a part of Egyptian politics but are not allied to either the government or the Muslim Brotherhood.
How different that cold Saturday morning was from the warm September night that marked the culmination of Nour’s presidential campaign. After visiting 18 towns in 20 days, Nour drew that campaign to a close in front of the Mogamma, the ultimate symbol of government in Egypt, in Tahrir Square.
Perhaps it was his daring to turn his back to the Mogamma, and in so doing urging Egyptians to put the old way of governing behind us and to take him as an alternative that unleashed this punishment on him.
Surrounded by hundreds of his supporters, Nour not only presented a detailed Ghad Party platform for governing Egypt but he was unsparing in his criticism of the government and its shortcomings. And now that same government has been equally unsparing in its treatment of him.
It is difficult to believe government claims that this was a neutral trial. The judge who passed sentence on Nour was the same judge who jailed another leading reformer and government critic, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, in 2002.
Nour’s conviction is surely a message that government patience for dissent of any kind has worn very thin. Many journalists and photographers who were documenting the violations of the recently ended parliamentary elections were hurt in the violence or directly threatened. The day before Nour’s conviction, I was summoned to State Security after I published an opinion piece critical of those elections in the International Herald Tribune.
If the Egyptian government continues to curb legal channels of dissent, what kind of lesson is it sending Egyptians? Nour represents the liberal, secular politics that many of us crave. The free flow of the words and photographs of journalists are the backbone of the kind of democracy that the government claims it is creating.
In jailing Nour, the head of a legal political party, and in allowing the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood unprecedented freedom to campaign during the parliamentary elections, I ask again what kind of message is the Egyptian government sending.
I spoke earlier of the winds of change of the past year. Over the past few months alone we have had unprecedented contested presidential elections, parliamentary elections and regular street protests. Along with many other Egyptians, I heeded those winds and decided to move back to Egypt from the United States for four months to be a part of what I believed was an historic moment in my country’s political life.
As I prepare to return to New York, I am honoured to have met and marched alongside hundreds of my brave compatriots whose love for Egypt drives them to make it a freer country in which all our voices are heard. There is nothing more energizing or inspiring to me than hearing their views and ideas on how to make Egypt better.
If the violence and the forgery of the parliamentary elections and if Ayman Nour’s conviction have left us dispirited, there are two things that keep hope alive in Egypt: an independent judiciary and an independent media. And we have seen examples of both at work recently.
In contrast to the judge presiding over Nour’s case, we must remember that another set of judges took the side of the Egyptian people during the parliamentary elections by issuing reports scathing in their criticism of the violations they saw.
Those judges have made it clear they will not be intimidated into silence. We heard their voices thanks to the growingly influential independent newspapers that many Egyptians have turned to in looking for the truth about Egypt today.
Let us build on those sources of hope as we look towards a better Egypt.