WASHINGTON -- I last saw Ayman Nour in a dingy Cairo conference room in 2005 while he was running for president against Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's military ruler. During a Middle Eastern trip, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had convened a small group of Egyptian dissidents and civil society leaders to discuss democracy and human rights. Many in the room were encouraged by the greater free expression Mubarak was permitting in Egypt under American pressure. A door, they thought, was opening.
Nour, looking exhausted, spoke last: "This is not an open door, it is a revolving door. It will end up with one conclusion -- a monologue, not a dialogue." Egypt's election laws, he complained, were unclear and unfair. The government was pursuing trumped up legal charges against him. State security agents followed him everywhere.
Nour's pessimism was prophetic. Following the election, he was imprisoned for three years. Now he is banned from practicing law, running for office or appearing on national television. Last week, two unknown assailants using a homemade flamethrower burned Nour's hair and face.
President Obama is entering a nation and a region where such treatment is the normal price of political courage. His Cairo University speech will send a large diplomatic signal: Does Obama honor and support such courage, or de-emphasize and dismiss it in the "realist" pursuit of other ends?
One hopes that Obama and his speechwriters have consulted "The Next Founders: Voices of Democracy in the Middle East," an important new book by Joshua Muravchik. The book profiles seven men and women -- six Arab, one Iranian -- taking impossible risks in the cause of human rights and self-government. They include a Saudi woman protesting the treatment of women as chattel; and an Egyptian publisher trying to bring a free, responsible press to an authoritarian society. Most of these reformers have suffered imprisonment or had their lives and families threatened.
Many of these dissidents, Muravchik told me in an interview, felt "betrayed" during the last few years of the Bush administration, when the containment of Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process seemed to take precedence over democracy promotion (except in Iraq). Reformers in the region generally greeted Obama's election with enthusiasm. But Muravchik says dissidents are becoming "disquieted about the administration's apparent indifference to democracy and human rights abuses."