updated 3/22/2005 5:15:02 PM ET 2005-03-22T22:15:02

The only man who has dared to challenge Hosni Mubarak for the presidency was charged Tuesday with forging signatures to win approval for his party — an escalation in the government’s confrontation with the most prominent figure in Egypt’s fledgling reform movement.

Ayman Nour said he relished a court fight he maintained would give him a platform for his campaign and his criticism of Mubarak’s regime.

“I’m personally the happiest person in Egypt by this decision, because every session of this trial will be a chance to meet our people and supporters,” he told The Associated Press. “The regime will stand trial in this court.”

Prosecutors accused Nour of forging signatures required for the registration application of his Al-Ghad — or “Tomorrow” — party. The 40-year-old politician denies the charges, saying they are an attempt to wreck him politically.

Political row sparks U.S.-Egypt tensions
Nour was arrested in January and detained for six weeks without charge — sparking tensions between Egypt and the United States, which demanded his release. The dispute came at a time when Washington was pressing Egypt to lead democratic reform in the Middle East.

After Mubarak opened the door for multiparty elections last month, Nour announced from jail his bid to run in the September presidential election, then repeated it last week in front of hundreds of cheering supporters after his release from custody.

He had been one of many calling for open elections, but the arrest put the savvy populist at the center of the increasingly vocal democratic movement in Egypt.

“We will continue to fight this dictatorship,” said Nour, who maintains people planted by the government forged the papers to frame him. He vowed to expose them in court — and to expose those who “forged the will of the nation” during the past half century of elections in Egypt.

“We will call into this trial all the symbols and officials of those forged referendums and put them into the court to testify,” Nour said, adding that his defense team would seek testimony from previous interior ministers who helped run elections.

Candidate could lose right to run
If he is convicted, Nour would lose his right to run for office and could face a prison term of up to 15 years — though the right would be restored if he successfully appealed any guilty verdict. No date for a trial has been set, and the process of trials and appeals could take years.

So far, Nour is the only person to announce a run for the presidency and is considered a long shot, since Mubarak’s government controls the media and the elected bodies that endorse candidates.

The charges against Nour had been expected since he was released on bail March 12.

Maher Abdel Wahed, the prosecutor general, charged Nour and six other party members with forging signatures to secure the party’s approval. He said the six acted on orders from Nour in an attempt to convince authorities his party “enjoys huge popularity.”

He said witnesses and some of the defendants have confessed to taking part in the forgery of 1,435 of the 2,005 signatures in the Al-Ghad party’s registration.

Abdel Wahed also emphasized the government’s “rejection” of foreign interference in what he called a purely criminal case.

‘Our battle is clear’
Nour denounced Abdel Wahed’s assertions, saying his movement is not connected with foreign pressure for reform.

“Our battle is clear, our aims are clear. Our weapon is people’s love, the simple Egyptians. We have no relations with foreign or domestic interference,” he said.

While other reformers have been tainted in the eyes of many Egyptians by connections to the United States, Nour stands out for having a popular base that made him Egypt’s youngest parliament member — at age 30 — and re-elected him ever since.

He also succeeded in gaining approval for his party in October, only the third party approved in 25 years.

Parliament is working out the regulations that will govern the presidential elections, including rules for people to become candidates. The regulations will be put to a referendum by May.

Mubarak, who succeeded Anwar Sadat following his 1981 assassination, has been reinstated four times through presidential referendums, in which people voted “yes” or “no” for a single candidate approved by parliament.

Debate over Mubarak’s motives
Some opposition groups have praised Mubarak’s decision to allow an open election. But others call it a bid by the 76-year-old president to maintain his grip on power or ensure control is passed onto his son, Gamal, who heads a policy-making committee within the National Democratic Party, which dominates parliament.

Nour has done the unthinkable in a country where charismatic challengers are kept from rising, mainly by powerful security officials.

Veteran opposition leader, Rifaat Said — who is considering a run for the presidency — said foreign intervention and the media hype around Nour could “burn” him among Egyptians.

“This whole atmosphere is fake. This kills the politician known as Ayman Nour,” said Said, who is in his 70s and leader of the leftist Tagammu party.

Said, himself imprisoned for years under Mubarak’s predecessors, said it was wrong to portray Nour as the “martyr of the opposition.”

Nour “is not the strongest opponent in Egypt. He is the smallest political party,” he said.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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