Opposition leader and former presidential candidate Ayman Nour was busy last week.
On Monday, he led a protest march through downtown Cairo. On Thursday, he announced his candidacy for president in 2011 on the ticket of the Al Ghad Party, which he founded in 2004. And on Friday, someone tried to set his head on fire on the sidewalk.
Upon leaving his home in an upscale Cairo neighborhood, Dr. Nour says, two young men on a bicycle passed by calling his name. When he turned to look, one of them raised an aerosol can and flicked open a lighter.
"He lit the lighter and flame shot out towards my face for about a meter," says Nour, recovering at home with a line of white blisters across his forehead. "It burnt the side of my head, my forehead, my hair, and also the shoulders and collar of my suit."
Nour accuses elements of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) of being behind the attack, and ties it explicitly to the announcement of his candidacy in 2011.
"To understand what happened to me on Friday, you have to know what happened on Thursday," he says in his first in-person interview with a Western reporter since the incident. "It was definitely politically motivated."
If that charge is true, it makes the attack a rare act of political violence in a country where dissidents are more likely to face jail time than a homemade flame-thrower. Supporters of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak deny government involvement, and observers say the attack could have been planned by anyone. Either way, it raises uncomfortable questions about the government's attitude toward dissent less than two weeks before a long-awaited visit by US president Barack Obama.
Analyst doubts government role in attack
Nour became known around the world in 2005, when he was sentenced to five years in prison just weeks after running against Mr. Mubarak in the country's first multiparty elections. Many saw the charges against him as politically motivated.
Likewise, many also saw a political angle to Nour's early release from jail in February, which was widely seen as a gesture of goodwill from Mubarak to Obama.
On Sunday, the government reversed a conviction against a second dissident: Egyptian-American democracy activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim. He has spent two years in exile in the US, where he is a visiting faculty member at Harvard University, rather than do time for the crime of "tarnishing Egypt's reputation."
Given the political dimension of Nour's case, Mubarak supporters say it would be illogical for the government to physically attack him just weeks before Obama's visit on June 4.
"It doesn't make sense," says Hussein Amin, a journalism professor at the American University in Cairo. "The government just released Nour and Saad as a show of good intentions to the United States, so why would they then go and spray [Nour] with fire?"
Dr. Amin is a former member of the international relations committee within the NDP, where he says he pushed for the two dissidents' release.
"It would be such a stupid decision," he adds. "It is insulting to my intelligence."
He says if the government really wanted to silence Nour it could arrange something more serious than "this minor attack."
Symptom of infighting within opposition?
Nabil Abdel Fattah, assistant director of the Ahram Center, a Cairo think tank with ties to the government, says the attack may indeed have been political. But he says it could have been a case of infighting within the opposition, which is far from united.
"This may have to do with a personal or business conflict in Nour's life, or a political conflict within the Al Ghad Party," he says.
During a fight over party leadership last year, members seen as being sympathetic to the Mubarak regime set the headquarters on fire.
The men who burned the party headquarters were never arrested or charged, and Nour thinks those who attacked him on Friday will also never be pursued. He has also concluded that there is no logic or intelligible pattern behind such incidents.
"In an authoritarian regime like ours you cannot know the reasons why things like this happen," he says. "This is ordinary behavior for a regime that wants to deter any opposition to itself."
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