The embers of political plurality
It is not just the Ghad Party headquarters that has gone up in flames, reports Mona El-Nahhas
On Thursday morning the headquarters of the liberal Ghad (Tomorrow) Party, located in a building on Talaat Harb Square, turned into a battlefield.
A general assembly meeting of Ghad Party members loyal to jailed party founder Ayman Nour had been scheduled.
According to Nour's supporters, an hour before the start of the general assembly Moussa Mustafa Moussa, who leads a splinter wing of the party, headed towards the headquarters and tried to seize it by force.
Molotov cocktails and aerosol cans were used to spread flames.
"They are burning the office... we are suffocating... we are trapped on the upper floor." Desperate SMSs came thick and fast to reporters.
Car windows beneath the office were smashed and "when fire engines came to the scene thugs attacked the firemen trying to grapple the hose from their hands" says one Ghad member.
When the fire was brought under control dozens of party members from both sides were arrested. The prosecution subsequently released all the defendants and instructed the security authorities to begin investigations.
Moussa claims that he was leading a peaceful march to the Talaat Harb headquarters "to seize control" of it since, under a court ruling passed two years ago, he had been named as the sole leader of the Ghad. The property in question, however, which Nour had used as the base of his legal practice before being imprisoned, belongs to Nour's wife, Gamila Ismail.
"It's Ismail's apartment. Moussa has no legal claims on her property," says lawyer Ihab El-Kholi.
During Al-Ashera Masaan, a popular programme on Dream 2 satellite channel, Ismail revealed she had been warned of the attack in advance by an NDP member sympathetic to her position. She then rushed to Qasr Al-Nil police station asking for a protection.
"No one budged," Ismail said, accusing the security apparatus and the ruling NDP of collaborating with thugs to destroy the party's offices. "Even the police who are daily present in the neighbourhood were totally absent," Ismail charged.
According to Ismail, Nour's supporters closed the door of the building, which also contains the Groppi coffee shop and the Greek Club as well as residential apartments, to prevent the rival faction from entering. "Thugs hired by Moussa then began to break the chains using blowtorches," she said, presenting photographs as evidence.
Moussa told TV host Mona El-Shazli that his men were trying to break the door to "save people who were trapped inside the building". He went on to accuse Ismail of working illegally under the banner of his party. "I want to tell her 'lift your hands off the Ghad Party otherwise you and your group will get into endless troubles'," Moussa warned Ismail.
During the interview Moussa repeatedly accused Ismail of acting as an agent of the US and other foreign powers.
"I will not allow anyone to question my patriotism," Ismail replied angrily. When she responded that Moussa was simply an agent working for the security apparatus Al-Ghad's self-proclaimed leader did not deny the charge. "Working as an agent for the security apparatus is better than working as a US agent," Moussa said.
Nour issued statements from behind bars condemning what had happened.
"Such thuggery and such terrorism will not make us change our position. I'll be released by the force of law on 21 June," Nour said, adding that his new headquarters will be in every street, coffee shop and alleyway.
Last Thursday's fire was the second to hit a building linked to Nour. In 2006 a fire damaged a charity centre that Nour founded and where he had held political meetings before being imprisoned.
Political analyst Amr Hashem Rabie views the incident as symptomatic of the way the regime handles the opposition. "Every blow they direct against Nour makes a hero of him and stirs public sympathy towards him," he says.
The liberal Wafd Party witnessed a similarly bloody battle two years ago between supporters of Mahmoud Abaza, the current chairman, and those of Noman Gomaa, the ousted leader. The situation is not that better at the Arab Nasserist Party, which has been embroiled in endless internal disputes.
Rabie questions the usefulness of a multi- party system in a country where "all opposition powers are infiltrated by the government."