CAIRO — The bespectacled lawmaker marched into his plush office and settled before the television cameras. He grimaced shyly, almost whispering as he tested the microphones. And then, without a pause, Ayman Nour ripped into Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's ruling party.
The night before, one of Nour's supporters had been killed and about a dozen more wounded when an armed mob ambushed their buses in the Nile Delta countryside, he said. According to Nour, ruling party officials paid thugs $10 each to block his party from opening a new office there.
"The one responsible for what happened yesterday is the head of the executive authority, and we name him: Mohammed Hosni Mubarak," Nour says. "It's not true that we have a ruler who's willing to give up his throne. We have a ruler who's willing to spill blood to keep it."
Egyptian politics took an unpredictable turn when Mubarak promised to hold a presidential election this fall. For decades, Egyptians have gone dutifully to the polls to vote "yes" or "no" in presidential referendums in which Mubarak was the only choice.
Now the 40-year-old Nour has emerged as the most visible alternative to Mubarak. It's a position he has earned in part by default. It was Mubarak's security forces that boosted Nour's popularity -- and introduced him to the world beyond Egypt -- when they recently jailed him on charges of faking signatures to form his party.
Nour's arrest outraged his Egyptian allies, and their protest reached Washington. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice canceled a visit to Egypt, reportedly to protest Nour's imprisonment.
The Egyptian parliament will consider guidelines today spelling out who will -- and, more significantly, who will not -- be eligible to run for president. There is a chance that Nour will be excluded. But despite the many reasons Nour is unlikely to become president, he appears to have deeply annoyed the regime.
"So far he's been outspoken, he was given a lot of space in the Western media, he was turned into 'the main opposition leader in Egypt,' 'the only alternative to the ruling party,' and so on," says Mohammed Kamal, a member of the policy secretariat of the ruling National Democratic Party. "He's entitled to say that about himself. The Western media is entitled to describe him in any way they want. But the real test is going to be the election, the votes."
In the weeks before he was detained, Nour had been calling for a constitutional overhaul to curtail Mubarak's powers or to oust him altogether.
The government accused Nour of faking signatures when he established his party, but the arrest raised immediate suspicions of political motivation.
"They thought they could give one strong blow on one day and finish Ayman Nour forever," Nour said in a recent interview. "The end result was that the whole case became a public scandal for the government."
After 42 days in prison, Nour was freed to await trial. Since his release, he has been smeared in government-linked newspapers and called a "rat" in banners draped throughout his district.
"I don't think there are specific orders for people to go after him or harass him," Kamal says. "But this is an election environment, and you expect a lot of things like that happening."
Nour doesn't seem like much of a challenge to a president who has maintained an unshaken grip on Egypt since taking power 24 years ago.
Nour has a fervent but small power base in a gritty Cairo neighborhood. His detractors dismiss him as a political nobody, "at bottom a TV phenomenon," as the government-run Al Ahram newspaper wrote.
Nour is due to stand trial for forgery next month. Because of a summertime court recess, he could be tied up in court or behind bars on election day.
"I think the government will try very hard, will push to prevent Ayman Nour from becoming a candidate," says Ahmed Seif Islam, director of Cairo's Hisham Mubarak Law Center. "If the government succeeds in using legal techniques to block Ayman Nour, people will lose interest in the election."
When Nour's followers give directions to his weekly rallies in the Cairo neighborhood of Bab al Shaeriya, they usually quip that you're getting close when you see the signs insulting Nour.
The banners are slung over a rough cluster of butcher shops, juice stands and coffeehouses: "Bab al Shaeriya renounces every outlaw, every deviant, every traitor to the country, every agent of colonialism," says one.
"We are united behind President Mubarak," says another.
"Those who lie and say Egypt doesn't have democracy should come to Bab al Shaeriya."
Asked about the signs, the shop owners roll their eyes and shrug.
"It's the ruling party who put all of these up," says Khaled Abdel Alim, who sells sinks and toilets. "All of a sudden they made a fuss about Ayman Nour."
Nour represents the neighborhood in parliament and has spent years here building popularity the old-fashioned way: dropping money and doling out favors to the needy.