Although the 40-year-old lawyer and leader of the Ghad (Tomorrow) Party stands little chance of winning against incumbent Hosni Mubarak in next week's vote, analysts credit him with having instilled some passion into a lacklustre campaign.

"Nour managed to succeed where Jamal (Mubarak's son) failed in coming across as a liberal and a reformist," said Hala Mustafa who runs the respected periodical Al-Dimoqratiya.

 

"He's triggered a political debate in Egypt," she added.

 

Revamp

 

Nour, two years Jamal's junior, has vowed to revamp the constitution to establish a parliamentary democracy, hold free and fair elections within two years and lift the 24-year-old state of emergency.

 

"We want freedom. We want to end 24 years of oppression, economic crisis and joblessness"

Ayman Nour,
Egyptian presidential candidate

He also preaches tax cuts across the board and economic laissez-faire.

 

"We want freedom. We want to end 24 years of oppression, economic crisis and joblessness," Nour is often heard thundering from behind campaign podiums.

 

Two weeks into the campaign, Nour emerged as the most serious of Mubarak's nine challengers and possibly a future leader of the opposition.

 

Nour, who says that the four-term president's prerogatives are "that of a god", says that "if free and fair elections are held, Mubarak won't get more than 10 to 15 % of the vote".

 

People's person

 

Flanked by wife Jamila, a former television celebrity, and their two teenage sons, Nour makes a point of mingling with the crowd unprotected by an army of bodyguards.

 

When Mubarak jetted in and out of the country's remote southern provinces, Nour made the long journey by train with frequent stop-overs.

 

Mubarak is favourite to win in
next week's presidential polls

Critics charge he lacks statesmanship and point to his meandering political career to cast him as an opportunist.

 

"He's always lacked seriousness," said Mahmud Abaza, second-in-command of the liberal Wafd Party, which expelled him in 1999 after a power struggle pitting him against Numan Jumaa.

 

Jumaa, 70, not only stayed on but he is now running for president.

 

Stooping low

 

The editor-in-chief of Al-Watani, the leading paper of Egypt's Christian Coptic minority, charges that Nour has "no programme".

 

"It's scandalous to see him stoop so low as to go pray with the Muslim Brothers" to secure their endorsement, Yusuf Sidhum also said.

 

The banned but tolerated Muslim Brotherhood - Egypt's largest opposition group - has instructed its supporters to vote but stopped short of saying whom for.

 

US ties

 

Ghad vice-president Hisham Qasim says Nour only resorted to tactics of his rival, pointing to the whole-hearted support both Muslim and Coptic religious leaders have lent Mubarak, with the church going as far as suspending a priest over his affiliation to Ghad.

 

"He's even not dealing with foreign policy, he knows it's not his forte"

Hisham Qasim,

Ghad Party vice-president

Strident US calls for his release when he was jailed on charges of forgery earlier this year had fuelled speculation about his alleged ties with Washington.

 

Nour shares the US administration's desire for democratic reform but has strived to distance himself from a cumbersome ally in a country rife with anti-Americanism.

 

"He's even not dealing with foreign policy, he knows it's not his forte," said Qasim.

 

Nour says his forgery trial, set to resume shortly after the election, is a ploy to undermine his campaign and wreck his party's standing in the November parliamentary polls.