CAIRO, Egypt — Ayman Nour has been out of an Egyptian prison for 100 days, and already the one-time presidential candidate is prepared to go back.
Faced with renewed intimidation, Egypt's best-known political reformer said his early release was serving as a fig leaf for President Hosni Mubarak's autocratic rule.
"I'm not joking about this," Nour said earlier this week at his Cairo apartment, where he's recovering from what he claims was a government-backed street corner attack with a makeshift flamethrower.
"I want to send a message to the world that what's happening in Egypt is a crime," said Nour, who spent more than three years in prison. "And what's more proof of that than to say: 'I want to go back to jail?' "
As Cairo prepares to welcome President Barack Obama on Thursday, when he's scheduled to deliver a major speech to the Arab world, politicians such as Nour are growing increasingly concerned that Obama will sacrifice democratic reforms in Egypt to shore up Mubarak in pursuit of the American president's broader Middle East agenda.
For years, Mubarak's critics could bank on strong American backing as they tried to challenge the 81-year-old Egyptian leader's 27-year rule.
Then-President George W. Bush and his administration pushed Mubarak and leaders across the Middle East to reform.
"For 60 years, the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East , and we achieved neither," then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said four years ago this month in Cairo . "Now we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people."
The Bush administration's strategy faltered when anti-American groups from Egypt to Lebanon became the biggest beneficiaries of the Republican push for political reforms.
In elections, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood emerged as the biggest opposition bloc in the country's parliament. Hamas hard-liners won majority control of the Palestinian Authority, and the Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim Hezbollah secured veto power in Lebanon's government.
Now Obama is charting a different path.
He's expected to use Thursday's speech to call for a cooperative era of ambitious regional diplomacy, and Egypt is expected to play a central role in his push. The country is the second-largest recipient of U.S. aid. It's one of only two Arab nations to sign a peace treaty with Israel , and Mubarak has signaled an aggressive new willingness to challenge Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's attempts to shift the balance of power in the Middle East .
"The new administration values Egypt in a completely different way," said Hossam Zaki , a spokesman for Egypt's Foreign Ministry . "They understand the importance of this country to peace and stability in the region and the world."
There are widespread expectations in Cairo that Obama will play down calls for democratic reforms in Egypt and instead rely on private meetings to raise the issue with Mubarak.
"They know how to speak to the Egyptians," Zaki said of Obama's administration. "There are ways to speak that can infuriate someone and there are ways to get him to do whatever you want. And this is a problem that we faced in the past."
That's what worries Egyptians such as Nour, who fear that Obama is prepared to tolerate a certain amount of repression from Middle East allies willing to help him with more complex regional issues.
"Thursday's speech is going to be a turning point," Nour said. "It's either going to be a chance for him to reach out to support the people who supported him or it's going to be a time that he takes into consideration regimes and parties that are hated by the people."
Nour sees warning signs in the Obama administration's decision to slash funding for democracy-promotion programs in Egypt by 70 percent.
Political reformers worry that Mubarak will see Obama's shift in priorities as a green light to pursue an aggressive crackdown on his critics.
While many saw Nour's release as a good-faith gesture to Obama before the speech, Egypt then arrested nearly three dozen members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Nour also has accused the government of orchestrating a bizarre attack outside his home last month.
One day after publicly pledging to challenge Mubarak for the presidency in 2011, Nour said, a man fired some sort of flamethrower at him as he was leaving his apartment building.
Nour said that the attack severely burned his forehead, but an Egyptian magazine challenged that story. Nour, Egypt Today reported, went to the hospital with his hairdresser, who said a hair dryer had caused the burns.
Mubarak allies seized on the story to ridicule Nour, who was convicted in 2005 of forging documents to form his El Ghad party in a case that human rights groups condemned as politically motivated.
Nour dismissed the hair dryer story as "pure fantasy" and part of an effort to derail his political comeback.
Perhaps of greater concern to Mubarak than Nour is the Muslim Brotherhood, whose political organization retains widespread support.
Mohamed Habib , a geology professor who serves as the deputy head of the Muslim Brotherhood, said Obama faced damaging political blowback if he didn't speak out against any efforts by Mubarak to crack down on democratic reforms.
"You can't expect oppression and dictatorship and authoritarianism to be a source of stability, unless stability in the point of the view of the American administration is a pressure cooker that they let a little steam out of one day or another," Habib said. "We have a real tense situation that's boiling and could explode at any minute."
Mohamed Kamal , a lawmaker in Mubarak's party, put it this way:
"The issue of the Muslim Brotherhood is very complicated. It's very difficult to deal with a group that is based on religion. They will always have the upper hand, given the fact that most Egyptians are religious and conservative. No one is saying that Egypt is a perfect democracy, but it's a transition and we have to deal with this issue."
© 2009 McClatchy-Tribune News Service. Reprinted Via Newscom.
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