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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. We start this hour in Egypt, where the nation's first free presidential election begins tomorrow. Twelve candidates are running for the top spot after Hosni Mubarak's ouster in last year's revolution. Many Egyptian voters say they're excited by the prospect of fair elections. Officials there are using new voting and counting methods that they claim will make it more difficult for anyone to cheat. But as NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Cairo, some Egyptians who played a role in the revolution are refusing to take part.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Egyptian state TV is playing patriotic songs and showing photographs of the revolution to encourage the country's 51 million voters to take part in tomorrow's presidential vote. The ruling generals on their Facebook page describe the vote as the only way to guarantee Egypt's future stability and development. And if that isn't enough incentive, officials are threatening to fine registered voters who don't cast ballots the equivalent of $16. That's a small fortune for most Egyptians.

Nevertheless, Egyptian activist Sarah Hawas refuses to go. The 24-year-old film researcher who was involved in some of the protests that ousted Mubarak dismisses the vote as a ploy by the military junta to look democratic.

SARAH HAWAS: It's extremely difficult for anyone that has been struggling in this revolution from day one to trust - even superficially - that these elections mean anything but a referendum for continued military, you know, control.

NELSON: Hawas says no election should be held while the generals engage in undemocratic behavior. She points to thousands of civilians who've been arrested and referred to military trials without due process, as well as recent violent attacks on protestors.

HAWAS: I don't think that given the present conditions, that any president - no matter how close to the revolution - will have much sway at ending the state of affairs.

NELSON: Egyptians who plan to cast ballots were more optimistic. One interviewed at Tahrir Square - the epicenter of the revolution - is Mohammed Abdel Azim.

MOHAMMED ABDEL AZIM: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: The 30-year-old, who does interior design work, says he's happy because he will finally have a say in who runs his country. Despite the mixed feelings, turnout is expected to be heavy when the polls open across Egypt at 8:00 a.m.

HASSAN ABU TALEB: Most of the Egyptians believe this is a turning point.

NELSON: That's Hassan Abu Taleb, who is a consultant for the state-funded al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

TALEB: Maybe it will open a window - a small window - for the future, a real future for democratization, for economic achievement, for security and stability.

NELSON: There will be international monitors to ensure the vote's legitimacy, including a U.S. group headed by former President Jimmy Carter. Egyptian election officials say to prevent tampering during the count they are using improved ballots with serial numbers and transparent ballot boxes with multiple seals. Which of the twelve candidates will win is anybody's guess, given conflicting opinion polls. If no one gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the two top winners will take part in a runoff in mid-June. But who wins is not as important as what follows, says Khaled Fahmy, who heads the history department at the American University in Cairo.

KHALED FAHMY: I personally don't think that this presidency, this election, counts for that much. This president and I suspect the parliament will not last for long.

NELSON: He and other analysts say it will be the contest over who gets to draft the new constitution that Egyptians should be paying attention to. The ruling generals say they plan to revise the document without voter approval, a move some fear will enshrine their power. The changes are expected to limit civilian oversight of the armed forces. The changes will also give the military a say in the country's key policies, even after the generals step down. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Cairo.

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