Presidential Hopefuls Use Fear Campaigns In Egypt

The presidential run-off in Egypt has deteriorated into a nasty debate over whether the country should have an Islamist government or a Mubarak-style regime. Each of the candidates is using scare tactics to draw voters to their side.

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In Egypt, fear has become a key factor in this weekend's presidential runoff, much of it generated by the candidates themselves. Each warns that the other will create a country many Egyptians dread: either an autocratic state marred by oppression and corruption, or an Islamist nation beholden to ultraconservative benefactors like Saudi Arabia.

The negative messages have spurred protests and diatribes that are alienating Egyptian voters, as NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Cairo.

(SOUNDBITE OF EGYPTIAN INTERNET GAME)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: The object of this popular Egyptian Internet game is to strike candidate Ahmed Shafiq with a shoe. Each throw generates a shout of felool, which is Arabic for remnant.

(SOUNDBITE OF EGYPTIAN INTERNET GAME)

NELSON: It's a slur here used for anyone linked to former President Hosni Mubarak's regime, like Shafiq who was his last prime minister.

The game's creator - who only gave his first name - Ahmed, claims not to be connected to Shafiq's rival, the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi. But he admits drawing inspiration from the intense mudslinging that has defined campaigning in Egypt in the run-up to this weekend's election. Others have taken their cue from the negative jabs as well.

JUDGE AHMED EL-ZEND: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Like Judge Ahmed el-Zend. The president of the Egyptian Association of Judges last weekend delivered a televised address in which he warned against the Muslim Brotherhood monopoly of power if Morsi is elected. Zend accused the Brotherhood of trying to tear apart the country. The comments were controversial given that judges monitor polling stations here.

Neither Morsi nor Shafiq makes a secret of their disdain for one another. The men even refused to appear in the same room for a televised debate that had been scheduled for tonight but has since been canceled. Each man warns that the other is an enemy of the people who will destroy Egypt's emerging democracy if elected president.

AHMED SHAFIQ: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: In this video posted on the Web by his campaign, Shafiq accuses Morsi and his movement of fueling sectarianism and chaos.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING PROTESTERS)

NELSON: And in this video of a recent rally for the Brotherhood candidate, supporters called Shafiq a tyrant and Mubarak holdover. Naila Hamdy, who teaches Journalism and Mass Communication at the American University in Cairo, says such negative campaigning is new in Egypt.

NAILA HAMDY: I've not seen anything like it in the Arab region. And I don't think I've seen anything like it anywhere else in the world.

NELSON: Hamdy adds such tactics could backfire, especially among undecided voters.

HAMDY: They are probably going to boycott or void their ballot, partly because they can see through this type of campaigns and it bothers them.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

NELSON: English teacher Heba Maher is one of them.

HEBA MAHER: No, I'm not going to vote. I'm sorry. I didn't like--I didn't want to be in this election.

NELSON: But some voters like driver Ahmed Eid plan to change their vote. He says he voted for Morsi in the first round, but will vote for Shafiq this time.

AHMED EID: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Eid says he isn't happy with how the Brotherhood has performed since it won the recent parliamentary elections. Some Egyptian analysts say Shafiq's campaign has been more negative than that of the Brotherhood, which has concentrated on shoring up support among its well-established political base.

A Brotherhood political party spokeswoman, Nussaiba Ashraf, claims what Shafiq is doing is an act of desperation.

NUSSAIBA ASHRAF: The other candidate, Shafiq, now has no new thing to offer. So he is depending now very much on spreading rumors on our candidate.

NELSON: Shafiq's campaign dismisses any charges of mudslinging, however.

ISMAIL TALAAT: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Campaign volunteer Ismail Talaat says if there is a negative tone, it's only to defend against what their opponent is doing. He adds that Shafiq would have preferred to have an honest competition focused on what each side has to offer. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Cairo.

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