ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The U.S. will be watching closely to see how the elections in Egypt unfold. And as we heard from Soraya, there will be international monitors to see that the vote is fair. But NPR's Michele Kelemen reports that there are tight restrictions on outside observers.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The Carter Center, known for monitoring elections around the world, is the only American group authorized to witness the vote in Egypt. One hundred monitors will be traveling around the country, while former President Jimmy Carter stays in Cairo to visit polling stations there.

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: This is our 90th election in which we have been involved. All of them have been challenging or disturbed or troubled in some way. And this is, I think, one of the most important ones we've ever done.

KELEMEN: President Carter has a long history in the country, having brokered the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel in 1978. He says his organization's right to monitor the vote was never in doubt, but there are restrictions.

CARTER: We got our credentials quite late, on the 16th of this month, just a few days before the election. Secondly, we are restricted in what we can talk about to the press for the first time. We can't comment on the process of the election or the results. And the third thing is that we are limited to 30 minutes' visitation at each polling place, except we can stay there as long as we want to when they start counting votes.

KELEMEN: In an interview, President Carter said he agreed to work within these limitations because this vote is so important. Other Egypt watchers, though, are raising concerns.

SHERIF MANSOUR: Because most of the problems with this election have started long before the election day.

KELEMEN: That's Sherif Mansour, who's with Freedom House. He says there are questions about campaign financing and the election commission's decision to disqualify many candidates. But he says nongovernmental groups have been busy defending themselves from Egyptian legal challenges rather than doing the work they normally do.

MANSOUR: They were basically pushed to a corner of being on the defensive and working actually for their freedom before working for everybody else's freedom.

KELEMEN: The International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute didn't even apply to monitor these elections because they, like Freedom House, are on trial for allegedly operating illegally in Egypt. Mansour says he'll be back in court June 5th.

MANSOUR: This is a case that's going to define the role of civil society in Egypt, not just in Egypt, and the Middle East transitions, and across the world. So I think if there is a chance to fight it to the end, we should.

KELEMEN: The Carter Center doesn't have those same legal troubles, and former President Jimmy Carter is taking a longer view of Egypt.

CARTER: Well, of course this is a step-by-step process of a complete revolution deviating from a 60-year military dictatorship, in effect, to an absolutely free and unrestricted right of people to choose their own parliamentary members and their own president.

KELEMEN: And you've monitored a lot of different elections, as you said. How does it feel to be there right now, given your own history with Egypt?

CARTER: I'm really proud, and I feel like I'm a member of the Egyptian population. I feel like these people belong to me and that I belong to this country. Whenever I meet any Egyptians anywhere in the world, on an airplane or in Asia or wherever, they always come up and want to embrace me and thank me for the peace agreement that's kept them out of war now for the last 30-something years. So I feel very close to Egypt, and I've been very pleased to see what the people themselves have done, both with the original revolutionary spirit that was on the streets that overthrew a dictator in January of a year ago, and also that now are going through this process. So I'm pleased and honored and excited about the election.

KELEMEN: President Carter plans to be out at the polls in Cairo in the morning. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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