Islamists Vs. Mubarak Holdovers In Egypt Elections

Campaign fever is in the air in Cairo and around Egypt. Millions of voters go to the polls, Tuesday and Wednesday, for what many believe to be the country's first free election in its long history. Host Michel Martin discusses what's at stake in this election with Sherine Tadros, the Egypt correspondent for Al Jazeera English.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now, we turn to a very different topic. Today and tomorrow, millions of Egyptians will be voting in presidential elections. This will be the first time Egyptians will choose their president since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, but frankly, it's the first time most Egyptians believe they actually have a choice in who will lead their country.

We wanted to get a sense of the elections and what's at stake, so we've called Sherine Tadros. She is the Egypt correspondent for Al Jazeera English and she actually just took a break from election coverage to jet over to New York and accept a Peabody Award on behalf of her network for their coverage of the Arab Spring and she's with us now.

Welcome and congratulations on this high honor.

SHERINE TADROS: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: Could you just give us a sense of what the atmosphere was like in Cairo right when you left?

TADROS: Oh, it's really incredible. It's buzzing and it has been, really, for the past several weeks. I mean, you cannot drive through Cairo without seeing posters of presidential candidates everywhere. It's plastered all over the place and, in the last week, in fact, before I came to New York, I traveled around the country a little bit - north, south, east, west - just getting a sense of whether this was something that was just happening in the capital or whether that buzz was in the - you know, the outskirts, as well. And it definitely was. I mean, people, for the first time, feel like they're going to actually have a say in who their president's going to be.

And for me and you, that might be something so normal, you know, to be able to go to a polling station and actually believe that that vote will be counted. But, for Egyptians, this is what hundreds of people had to die for.

MARTIN: I was going to ask. Did you get a sense that Egyptians believe that this will be a free and fair and legitimate vote?

TADROS: I think so. I think, when it comes to the actual vote, there's a sense that they will be counted free and fairly. There is some monitoring and also the very fact that we had parliamentary elections at the end of last year and there were irregularities, but no huge, you know, ideas of fraud surrounding that vote.

I think the problem becomes after that. I think a lot of people are very skeptical about whether the military will actually hand over full power to a civilian president. What kind of powers they will try and retain in order to make sure that their economic privileges and their immunity is preserved. Those are the kind of concerns that people have.

MARTIN: Can you tell us a little bit about the front-runners? And these are not names that I think most Americans will know. So if you could just kind of broadly describe where they come from and who they are. It's my understanding that they are, in fact, politicians from the old regime and Islamists, and I wonder if you can kind of break that down a little for us. A lot of people are wondering what happened to out with the old, in with the new.

TADROS: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, broadly speaking, you can say that, for sure. There are 13 presidential candidates right now. I mean, you could say the front-runners come from those two camps, loosely said.

You've got Amr Moussa, who you may recognize. He was the former secretary general of the Arab League for a decade and, before that, he was the foreign minister in Egypt under Mubarak for a decade. He doesn't see himself as part of the old regime. He says that he broke with the old regime and he very much took a diplomatic path that was not under the thumb of Mubarak.

But then you have the former prime minister, the last prime minister that Mubarak appointed before he stepped down. His name is Ahmad Shafiq. Very much associated with the old regime. In fact, a lot of his campaigners are former members of the old regime or were associated in that way.

And then you have, if you like the Islamist side, two self-described Islamists. One of them is the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Morsy. He's a senior member of the party. He's not the first choice, bear in mind, of the Muslim Brotherhood. They fielded another candidate, but he was disqualified, so Mohammed Morsy was one of those who sort of snuck in nearer the end of the election window nominations.

And then the last one is a man called Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh. He was a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood. He left the Muslim Brotherhood last year because his understanding - and I've spoken to him at length about this particular idea, whether he left or he was forced out. But his understanding is that he doesn't think that religion and politics should be mixed up in this way. The Muslim Brotherhood is a religious organization. He wanted to lead the country. He wanted to be a politician and he says that's why he left. And he's running on a very liberal, if you like, program.

MARTIN: We're speaking with Sherine Tadros of Al Jazeera English. We happened to catch up with her in New York where she was accepting an award on behalf of her network for their coverage of the Arab Spring. We're talking about elections in Egypt. The voting is today and tomorrow.

It's interesting because I would feel comfortable in saying that I think there's been a lot of concern on the part of Americans that the Muslim Brotherhood would sweep the elections or would have much more strength than has been the case heretofore when this is a group that has been suppressed in Egyptian politics. But there's a new Gallup poll out saying that support for the Muslim Brotherhood is actually declining, and you're describing what's, in fact, not a unified movement at all.

TADROS: Yeah. I mean, you know what's really interesting, Michel, is telling you that I was out and about last week in different areas in Egypt. I met one man who voted for the ultra-conservative Salafis, so not the Muslim Brotherhood, but the Salafis and other people, as well. His friends had voted Muslim Brotherhood.

They were all voting for a secular liberal candidate in the presidential elections, and this is for two reasons. One, I think there's a little bit of a fear that you don't want over-dominance of one group or organization because that's exactly what Mubarak's national democratic party was. They infiltrated everything and there's a real fear of that.

Also, they're a bit disillusioned by the lack of reforms that the Muslim Brotherhood have, you know, been able to make, given the fact that they had such a dominance in parliament since November. They don't feel they've really delivered.

And there's also this feeling that, you know, we just want someone with experience. And I think, at the end of the day, that is what I heard time and time again from Egyptians from the north to the south, to the east, to the west. People want a president who can take them out of their two biggest concerns right now in Egypt. One, the lack of security and, two, the economic crisis.

MARTIN: Sherine, before we let you go, you touched on this briefly, but I did want to ask specifically about the role of the military during the election. Have they been very visible? Is the military deemed to be backing any candidates or not? What is your sense of it?

TADROS: It's a great question and it's one that's really debated in Egypt. From my perspective, I think the military has tried, at least from a sort of media perspective, to take themselves out of the spotlight during this presidential race. Practically, there's no doubt that they are supporting Ahmad Shafiq, who's the former prime minister, a military man. It would make their lives a lot easier insofar as they could make sure they could preserve their privileges and that the constitution won't have some crazy clause in it about their place.

It's very difficult for the army to accept civilian oversight over their budget, over their inner workings. So they certainly want to make sure that the next president, whoever that may be, will in some way be influenced by them and they can preserve themselves. So that's definitely something that they have in their minds.

Now, the question going forward is how are they going to actually enact that? I mean, once you actually have a president in office, if it's not Ahmad Shafiq, who is, you know, very closely linked to them, how is the military going to make sure that they preserve their influence and power and whatever within the overall system?

MARTIN: Sherine Tadros is the Egypt correspondent for Al Jazeera English. She's covering the presidential elections there, but we were actually able to catch up with her in New York, where she's accepting a Peabody Award on behalf of her network for their coverage of the Arab Spring.

Sherine Tadros, thank you so much for speaking with us and congratulations once again on this honor.

TADROS: Thank you.

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MARTIN: Just ahead, when Dwight Worker was caught trying to smuggle drugs in Mexico, he knew he did the crime, but realized he could not do the time.

DWIGHT WORKER: I think what convinced me that I had to leave were four distinct stab wounds in my stomach, three hospitalizations, 41 days in solitary confinement and I felt there was a real good chance I was not going to make this physically.

MARTIN: How he says he did it and what he's done since may shock you. That's next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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MARTIN: Being the CEO of a major company may seem like a job for a hardnosed take-no-prisoners leader, but that's not Laura Sen's way. She's the boss of BJ's Wholesale Club.

LAURA SEN: You know, I don't see the value in being someone that is intimidating or unapproachable or aloof.

MARTIN: We continue our series of conversations with Asian-American game changers next time on TELL ME MORE.

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