Commentary Magazine


Who Burned Ayman Nour?

On Friday night, prominent Egyptian opposition leader Ayman Nour was attacked in Giza, sustaining first-degree burns to his face and losing 20% of his hair after a young assailant sprayed him with flames from a pesticide aerosol. Naturally, the immediate suspect is the Egyptian government, which has persecuted Nour and his Ghad party relentlessly since Nour finished a distant second to President Hosni Mubarak in the 2005 elections. However, many analysts have been reluctant to accuse the regime of ordering the attack for three key reasons:

First, for all of the regime’s violence against opposition movements, it typically waits until its most prominent dissidents are behind bars before torturing them. Indeed, an attack on someone of Nour’s stature in broad daylight is practically unheard of. Second, the attack was remarkably rudimentary – again, the attacker used basic household items in a very sloppy assassination attempt. Third and most important, the attack would represent a stunning departure from the regime’s typically cautious modus operandi. After all, it comes barely two weeks before President Barack Obama is set to deliver a major speech to the Muslim world from Cairo — a location that was chosen, much to liberal dissidents’ consternation, as a carrot to the Mubarak regime.

Still, the regime has a clear motive for ordering an attack against Nour: since releasing Nour from political imprisonment in February, it has failed in its efforts to contain him. In this vein, despite the regime’s attempt to place his Ghad party under the control of a puppet, Egypt’s nominally independent courts have recognized Nour as the official leader. Moreover, Nour has maintained an active speaking schedule and, last week, declared his intention to run in the 2011 presidential elections. Finally, Nour recently testified via speakerphone before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, supporting a resolution that sharply criticized the Egyptian government. Looking ahead to Obama’s forthcoming speech in Cairo, the regime likely feared that Nour would get an audience with the U.S. President — a daunting prospect for Mubarak, 81 years old, as he pushes for his son’s seamless succession.

So here’s one theory: perhaps the Mubarak regime struck Nour when the international community would least suspect it of doing so — ordering an attack that did just enough damage to keep Nour out of commission, yet looked too rudimentary to be traced back to the government conclusively.

For the moment, two developments support this theory. First, according to a source, one of the key witnesses to the attack on Nour is being harassed via frequent phone calls and drop-in visits to his apartment — the regime’s typical intimidation tactics. Second, three days after the attack on Nour, the regime dropped its prison sentence against liberal dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who had been convicted of criticizing the government in the foreign press. As Dina Guirguis notes, this is the regime’s classic “bait and switch” move: using one “goodwill gesture” to distract the international community from its larger abuses.

Again, it is impossible to link the Mubarak regime conclusively to the attack on Nour. Indeed, the overall lack of clarity surrounding the incident is a big part of the reason the mainstream media has been slow to report on it. But if the regime did order the attack — and there is ample circumstantial evidence to suggest it had the motive to do so — then its strategic calculations regarding the means and timing of the attack were spot-on. After all, the international community has been totally silent on Nour, who is refusing to appear in public until his face is healed. Meanwhile, the Obama administration is moving ahead with its plans for a major address in Cairo, the capital of Middle Eastern authoritarianism.