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Egyptian Elections Complicated By Controversy


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. In a few weeks, Egyptians vote in a presidential election that many hoped would mark a full transition from military rule. Then the Egyptian Election Commission disqualified 10 candidates, including the two leading Islamists and the former intelligence chief.

Tens of thousands protested in Tahrir Square over the weekend. If the exclusions remain in force, they will raise questions about the legitimacy of the presidential election. Meanwhile, the commission that supposed to be writing the country's new constitution appears to be in disarray.

What's at stake at this stage in Egypt? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, Hispandering on the Opinion Page this week. But first, what's at stake now in Egypt. We begin with NPR foreign correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, who joins us now from Cairo, and nice to have you back on the program.


CONAN: And, well, if they remain in force, I understand there is still an appeal left.

NELSON: My understanding is that it's final, actually, that there will be a list coming out on Thursday but that it will not include these 10 people. I know that certainly the candidates are still trying what they can through public opinion protests and, you know, sort of an outcry, if you will, to see if some sort of miracle can be performed, but actually legally there really isn't any appeal of the appellate process within the presidential commission: Once the election commission rules on the appeal, that's supposed to be final.

CONAN: So that leaves any number of candidates, but is it going to leave the election itself as an open question? Will it leave whoever happens to win as - in question of saying, well, if he'd run against the real candidates, who knows?

NELSON: Well, certainly that's something that will be talked about down the road. But the problem right now for many Egyptians, I spent a lot of time interviewing people over the last few days, they're just totally confused by the process. They don't even know who all the candidates are. I mean, some of these candidates are quite minor.

For example, if you have a party, a political party, and you hold one seat in parliament, you can run, you qualify to run. Then you have more popular candidates who actually have to collect 3,000 signatures from across the country, from at least 15 of the 30 governorates, those are sort of like states if you will, and, you know, you have to have at least 1,000 signatures from each of those.

I mean, it's very complicated. So it's not a really fair process. It's a very confusing process. And Egyptians just, they don't understand what's going on. They're very frustrated, after actually having been very happy about what was supposed to be their first free election.

CONAN: And this commission, who appointed them? How did they get to be in charge?

NELSON: Well, they were actually - they were judges who were appointed during Mubarak's era, and the ruling generals have sort of made this commission, the group that will be deciding the rules and regulations and who gets to run and who doesn't. And they made it very clear from the get-go, the ruling generals said that this commission's ruling is final.

And so there's some fear that in fact this commission is being manipulated to sort of follow through on the desires of the generals, which of course is to have a president in place that's not going to interfere with their affairs, be it running the military, running their version of business, of course they have a great stake in the Egyptian economy here, and also allowing them to sort of have the final say on key policies in Egypt.

CONAN: Tell us about these groups, these - well, the three major candidates who were among those who were disqualified. They represent very important groups, among them the Salafist groups who came out on top in the parliamentary elections.

NELSON: Well, they were the second, actually. The Muslim Brotherhood, they came out on top, and their main candidate, Khairat el-Shater, as you pointed out at the beginning, he was disqualified. Now, the brotherhood, interestingly enough, chose to come in with a second candidate right away. The head of their political party, Mohammed Mursi, he heads the Freedom and Justice Party, which is the political party that dominates or at least - has almost half the seats, shall we say, in parliament, he's going to be running instead. And so now they're trying to whip up the popularity of that man.

And then of course there is the Salafist preacher who was of great interest and great concern to some, Hazem Abu Ismail. He was - or he is quite a conservative preacher with some very strange ideas by Western standards and even for more secular, liberal Egyptians. He was also disqualified. So he's sort of out of the equation, and there is no replacement, if you will, for him.

Interestingly enough, because these two Islamists, Khairat el-Shater and Hazem Abu Ismail, were disqualified, it really puts a third candidate who's actually a more moderate and appealing-to-liberals, surprisingly, Islamist candidate much further at the front. He's like number two now, and his name is Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh.

He was with the brotherhood. They kicked him out because he said he wanted to run for president. And so the brotherhood is, in part, you know, fielding their own candidate because they want to try to get this guy off-track, if you will.

CONAN: And then there was Omar Suleiman, the former intelligence chief and briefly vice president.

NELSON: Yes, he was one that people really did not want, and I can say whether Islamist Egyptians, whether secular Egyptians, I mean, except for those people who are pro-regime or sort of yearn for the old days, nobody wanted Omar Suleiman in charge. And in the end, he was disqualified.

There are a variety of thoughts as to why that happened. One is that he is not seen as getting along very well with the top ruling general here, Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi. And so he, you know, because they did not get along, the feeling was that he was sort of thrown out along with the two Islamists to sort of make the process look fair.

But, you know, on the other hand, there are some who say, well, this is the process actually working, you know, that the commission looked at all the qualifications and all the credentials of the people and all their submissions in terms of votes or I should say nominations and that sort of thing and that they made a legitimate decision by casting him out.

CONAN: There is also - we've not mentioned the person who is accepted by most as the frontrunner, Amr Moussa the former foreign minister.

NELSON: Absolutely. He has wide name recognition. He, for some, represents the level of experience that many here feel is needed in order to get the Egyptian economy, Egyptian security, just Egyptian stability back into being. Right now, this is a very volatile country on many fronts. And people here are very unhappy. I mean, the poverty is increasing. You know, the value of the Egyptian pound is coming down. You know, it's very unsafe at this point. The streets of Cairo, which used to be among the safest in the world, have become incredibly unsafe.

And people just are sort of looking for some sort of stability, and they feel that he, as someone who not only served in the Mubarak regime at some stage, but he also was the secretary general of the Arab League, and he has a lot of political experience and is well-liked also because he has a strong anti-Israel stance. That's very important to Egyptians nowadays, to have somebody in power who is not just going to have a good relationship with Israel the way people perceive Hosni Mubarak did.

CONAN: And then there is the question of the new constitution, which would include questions like: Would a civilian president be able to fire those military leaders who have been in power for the past year? That all seems to be up in the air, too.

NELSON: Very much so. In fact, there was an assembly that had been selected by the parliament that included many parliament members and also many Islamists, and that has now sort of been derailed, except that the military is really trying to push parliament and push political leaders to get this process back on track.

Hussein Tantawi, again the field marshal who is the ruling - or the top ruling general, has made it pretty clear that they want to see a new constitution in place before they hand over power, reportedly on June 30, although that date is now in doubt.

CONAN: Well, we want to hear from callers: What's at stake now in Egypt? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. But let's turn first to Tarek Masoud, assistant professor of public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and he joins us from studios there in Cambridge. Nice to have you with us today.

TAREK MASOUD: Good to be with you.

CONAN: And at this point, given the confusion over the presidential election, is this going to be perceived as a legitimate government if it's elected?

MASOUD: I think so. I mean, I understand the concern. Obviously, somebody like Khairat al-Shater, who is the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, his disqualification might be seen as somehow preventing a very strong person from actually running as somebody who could win a lot of votes, and you could say the same thing about the disqualification of Omar Suleiman, Mubarak's former vice president.

But you've got to remember there are 13 presidential candidates, and the ones who are leftover aren't exactly unknowns, and there doesn't seem to be this huge explosion of popular anger on the streets of Cairo. There were protests, but all political forces seem to be moving forward towards this election. So I think we need to be a little bit careful about reading too much into these disqualifications.

CONAN: And this presidential council, the commission that decided on who was qualified and who was not, and they had their rules, they made their decisions, but these are, as Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson pointed out, holdovers from the Mubarak regime. Indeed, the entire military junta still running the country, holdovers from the Mubarak regime. It's a new world, but major elements of the old world are still in power in Cairo.

MASOUD: Yeah, but let's think about this. First of all, the Presidential Elections Commission, this is made up of judges. And as Soraya pointed out, the judiciary in Egypt, though of course the senior members of the judiciary were people who had to, you know, have enough career savvy to do well in the Mubarak era, the judiciary still as a whole has a great deal of credibility.

And if you look at the precise terms on which they made their decisions, they seem to have been based on very narrow interpretations and very neutral interpretations of the law. Just to kind of give you a flavor of this, remember when Omar Suleiman announced his candidacy, lots of people thought that this was part of the ruling military junta's plan to revive the autocracy.

Now, when Omar Suleiman has been, you know, disqualified from running for president, we - people are instantly saying that this is part of the military junta's plan somehow. So whatever happens, you know, those who are dissatisfied with the outcome will think that the junta played a key role, but there's not yet any real evidence of that.

CONAN: So as we look toward the immediate future, you see Egyptians largely accepting that this election is going to be fair and free though the two leading Islamists, as we said, somehow ended up among those disqualified?

MASOUD: Well, you know, Khairat al-Shater, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, was disqualified, but the Muslim Brotherhood had a back-up candidate ready to go. Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, you are right, was disqualified and was polling in the mid-20s. But you've got to remember, every single presidential poll that is conducted in Egypt has a huge percentage of people who are undecided.

So it's not as if a vast majority of Egyptians had made up their minds about this guy and therefore are upset that he's disqualified.

CONAN: We're talking about Egypt and what's at stake in next month's presidential election. Your calls in just a moment, 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. In a few weeks, Egyptians are set to elect a new president. Nearly half of the candidates, though, are now barred from running. They've promised they will not go quietly. The military continues to run the country. The constitutional process, the economy and the tourist industry are all in various stages of disarray, and Egypt's national gas company yesterday cut off exports to Israel.

What's at stake at this stage in Egypt? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And you can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Our guests: NPR foreign correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Cairo; and Tarek Masoud, who specializes in Middle East politics and policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. And let's see if we can begin with Steven(ph), and Steven's on the line with us from San Francisco.

STEVEN: Yes, hi there. Your speaker said, and you just mentioned, that the candidate needs to be anti-Israel, and I was wondering what changed so dramatically in Egypt that the candidate need to be anti-Israel. And what does this mean for the peace accords and everything between the two nations?

CONAN: Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson?

NELSON: Well, it's not black and white quite like that, but it's basically the relationship that was fostered between Egypt and Israel since the Camp David Accords is something that's sort of seen as a Hosni Mubarak leftover. There's a lot of anger and discontent here. Again, part of it is the economy. With this gas deal, for example, the feeling was, rightly or wrongly, that Egypt had negotiated some kind of deal with Israel that was letting them get this gas at a really reduced rate and it was that they were also at the same time skimming off the top and that people were being placed at a disadvantage here in Egypt because of that.

Also, the feeling is - I mean, that it has been more of a one-way relationship, that Egypt has made all the capitulation. So it's a point of pride here. And even though - it's important to note that the top candidates have said that they want to honor the treaty, you know, that they're not - no one's looking to necessarily unravel Camp David, not even the Muslim Brotherhood and others have - I mean, some of the extremists talk about those sorts of things. But I'm talking about people who have sort of a majority pull here.

And so, you know, you have to have some of the rhetoric, but you need to kind of take it in context because it's not like, you know, the minute a new president comes in you're going to have war with Israel or something.

But it is important to people here that whoever comes next not be perceived as sort of continuing the policies of Hosni Mubarak.

CONAN: Tarek Masoud, the relationship with Israel, the recognition of Israel following Camp David, yes a matter of state for the regime but always not particularly popular amongst the people of Egypt.

MASOUD: Well, that's absolutely right. I mean, your caller said what changed. I don't think much has changed. Remember that the man who concluded the peace treaty with Israel, Mubarak's predecessor, Anwar Sadat, was ultimately killed for doing so. This was not a move that was popular in the Egyptian street.

And then you add all of the things that Soraya talked about that further caused Egyptians to feel that this peace treaty was not necessarily in their best interest, rightly or wrongly as the case may be.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Steven.

STEVEN: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is - I'm sorry, Ivan(ph), Ivan with us from Nashville.

IVAN: Yes, thank you, I enjoy the show.

CONAN: Thank you.

IVAN: Some of my questions were answered through some of the other callers, but I have additional questions on top of that. One the main questions is: Is this more about a concern of perception as far as (unintelligible) predecessor, or the people who are developing the person who is going to be next in power really wanting someone to make a change and to kind of start from the ground up? So how do they gauge that, and how does someone who is living in that country can see that with true transparency, or will they ever see that?

CONAN: Could you - I'm sorry, I'm not quite sure I understand the question, Ivan. Are you asking how can voters perceive that - the policies of the various presidential candidates?

IVAN: Well, no, more of - it seems like, from the conversation, it just seems like there's - it's more of perception. You know, the people who are in power are developing or allowing people to run are more concerned with how the perception is going to be looking like rather than what they're actually doing. I haven't heard...

CONAN: Ah, is this the rule of law, or is this managing perceptions amongst the people? In other words, if you're going to disqualify the Islamists, you'd better disqualify Omar Suleiman, as well. Tarek Masoud?

MASOUD: Well, that's certainly one highly plausible interpretation. The interpretation I offered was a different one, where the - you know, the judges were really operating according to a very narrow and close interpretation of the letter of the law. And so if you look at, for example, why Omar Suleiman was disqualified, he was disqualified because he fell short by something like 30 signatures.

You had to have 30,000 signatures. He ended up having 50,000, but several of these came in after the deadline by a couple of hours, and so they only counted the ones that came in under the deadline, and of those, there were a few that looked problematic. And so, I mean, the guy gets disqualified for having a really miniscule shortfall.

And so that certainly signals to some people that wow, the committee really is applying the letter of the law to whoever is there, so regardless of whether it's an Islamist for some old conviction or whether it's this anti-Islamist for not having enough signatures. So you're absolutely right, it could be interpreted, and there could be behind the scenes this kind of Machiavellian scheme to, you know, have these very deft disqualifications so it doesn't look like the military is leaning towards one or the other, but the other interpretation is just this is the judges acting independently, and they disqualified a lot of people on a lot of different bases. The common denominator is it's all according to the letter of the law.

IVAN: But that's the whole thing: How can you act independently if you had previous involvement in a regime that was completely discredited?

MASOUD: So not all parts of that regime were completely discredited. As I noted, the judiciary, though obviously has some problems, and there are some members of the judiciary, senior judges who clearly are viewed as holdovers of the Mubarak regime and former handmaidens of that regime, on the whole the judiciary is probably the most credible institution in Egyptian society.

And so for example, I mean, we don't want to get into this now, but one of the other big bombshell moves that the judges - you know, an administrative court pulled off a couple of weeks ago was it actually suspended the committee of the parliament that was sitting down to write the constitution. And they didn't clearly state why they were suspending that committee, but the point is their suspension of that committee was widely viewed as legitimate. The Islamists grumbled about it, but they abided by the decision, and that to me is a testament to the legitimacy of this institution.

CONAN: Ivan, thanks very much for the call.

IVAN: Thank you.

CONAN: And it raises questions, Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, about the constitution and about this transfer of power from military rule to civilian rule and how the military - does the military hope that the new constitution will in fact continue to enshrine its prerogatives?

NELSON: Well, certainly they have their vision for the constitution, and again, they are seeking certain protections to, as you say, enshrine, you know, the way they operate and sort of being separate, if you will, from this new public oversight and this new democracy that's coming about.

But the problem is that even if everybody was in agreement, which they're not, if all political parties were in agreement, which they're not, you can't - it's very difficult to come up with a committee and then rewrite a constitution, even the articles that are - the few articles that are sort of under contention, you know, in the span of the next - or in less than two months, basically, especially when you're in the process of trying to run a nationwide presidential election.

But there are already - there is some tea-leaf reading here, and I'm sure Tarek can weigh in on this as well, that perhaps this becomes the excuse for why the military doesn't hand over power June 30 if they're not happy with the way the elections go or with the way things are going in general because they are very - they are also very concerned about stability, not just stability within Egypt but, you know, Egypt's relationship and its actions, you know, toward other countries around it.

CONAN: Tarek?

MASOUD: Yeah, I think what Soraya is saying is exactly right. Certainly the military wants to have certain privileges and a degree of autonomy enshrined in the constitution. So for example, last November they actually floated a set of articles that would be included in the constitution, and one of them said that the military's budget would only be listed as a single number, and there could be no parliamentary discussion or oversight of that number.

So Soraya is absolutely right that the military wants its autonomy prerogatives preserved, and it doesn't want to be prosecuted, its leaders at least don't want to be prosecuted for crimes once you've got an elected president.

So however, though there is a lot of concern in the sort of Egyptian, you know, among the Egyptian intelligentsia and political class that the military may postpone the presidential election or delay the handover of power pending the result, I think that, if they're - given that their main concern is stability, I feel that that's going to be very difficult for them to do because there, then, I would imagine, you know, massive protests on the part of those who had won the election. So that, I think, maybe even outside of the military's - military's power, although, you know, it's - you can't really predict anything in Egypt. So it's possible.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Ide(ph). Ide with us from San Francisco.

IDE: Hi.

CONAN: I'm sorry. I hit the wrong button. There you go.

IDE: Yeah. I agree with the decision to bar the Muslim Brotherhood people from the election. Egypt has always gone through the history as a secular country, even though the, you know, the religion of the country is Islam. The fact is, the old Egyptian flag, before Nasser changed it in the mid-'50s was crescent and three stars. And the star represents Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This is the Egypt I love. And also, when I left Egypt in the '60s, I was at University of Cairo. Half my student classmates were women. They would dress in, you know, liberal Western clothes.

I get - feel very bad. I feel very sad when I look at Egyptian women now, where many of them are dressed in this hijab business was not even an Islamic thing. And the biggest beef of the Muslim Brotherhood, in fact, is always something about women. So I am very happy for that decision, and I hope they do not take over the government in Egypt. I think Egypt is always a progressive country. Egypt is the most modern in the world because it contributed a lot of things to the whole world.

And this people are very restrictive. When I was a child, I was exposed to some of their teaching, and it's very narrow teaching. And it revolved always around women and about things that don't even represent Islam itself. Thank you.

CONAN: Thank you, Ide. And, Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, as you noted earlier, one of the Muslim Brothers' candidates was disqualified. They have put forward another, and a third just left the group very recently.

NELSON: Yes. The - that's true. In fact, as I mentioned, the former brotherhood leader, Abdul Moneim Abol Fotouh, he is in fact seen as the leading Islamist candidate right now. And surprisingly, he has great appeal to a lot of secular and even liberal parties or I should say individuals because he - of his ideas or whatnot. But I think there's something that the caller noted that - I mean, perhaps he didn't intend to. But I think it's important to point out here we have this election. We had 23 candidates. Now, we have 13. None of them are women.

This is a continuing problem, and women here whether they're wearing the hijab or not, I think, are all quite sad that this - in this new Egypt as the new government comes out, as democracy moves forward, that women are - have been shut out of this process. I mean, there was one potential presidential candidate, and she just couldn't get enough votes or endorsements, if you will, either within parliament or the 30,000 signatures that I mentioned at the beginning.

CONAN: And how many women were elected to parliament?

NELSON: Oh, it was a handful. Tarek, help me out here - six, I think?

MASOUD: Oh, yes, tiny, tiny number, yeah.

CONAN: We're talking about what's at stake at this crossroads in Egypt. Tarek Masoud is assistant professor of public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. And also with us, Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR foreign correspondent in Cairo. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And Kerry(ph) is on the line. Kerry with us from New Milford in Connecticut.

KERRY: Yes. I'm curious, if the election is a success, if the Constitution sticks and democratic reforms move forward, what is the likelihood that it will - might positively influence Egypt's neighbors?

CONAN: Well, that's a big question. Soraya?

NELSON: Well, in terms of Libya or these other countries that are undergoing some sort of Arab Spring or Arab war, or whatever you want to call it, it's unclear. I mean, I think, right now, there's a lot of disillusionment, certainly, within Egypt, with the whole process. I think, on Friday, this was a perfect example of how things have changed. I mean, this protest, which was supposed to be a unified protest where the brotherhood, for the first time, said it would come out, I mean, nobody was together.

It was just incredible how like visible the divisions were, how people were fighting with each other. You know, I saw April 6th Movement. This is like a liberal, you know, pro-democracy movement that was really very pivotal in the early days of the revolution. They're fighting with like brotherhood - Freedom and Justice guys. I mean, it was just - it was really depressing, I think, for observers, you know, and even for Egyptians to, sort of, see that there isn't any agreement or cohesiveness or sort of this hope that one saw at the beginning of the Arab Spring.

So I don't know. Does that disillusionment spread? I mean, right now, there really aren't too many places where one could say the Arab Spring has been a huge success. I mean, Tarek probably is going to disagree with me on that and maybe I've just - I've become jaded just, you know, being here and, sort of, seeing how people feel about it. But there really is this feeling that the situation here is very twisted right now, and no one really knows where it's going, and that it's being manipulated from behind the scenes - whether that's just, you know, a conspiracy theory or whether that's real - this is how people are feeling.

CONAN: And, Tarek Masoud, part of the dispiriting aspect that Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson just mentioned, the increasing poverty, the major economic problems that continue to develop in Egypt.

MASOUD: Oh, well, absolutely. You know, Egypt's foreign reserves continue to dwindle, and it's not exactly clear how they're going to deal with this problem. But just to get back to Soraya's excellent point. So I think that, you know, the question was if Egypt goes well, will this have an effect on other Arab neighbors? And I think the - it's possible it would. The problem is that Egypt going well or democracy working in Egypt, isn't necessarily going to be this wonderful era of comity and calm.

Democracy is messy, and democracy is about conflict. And the dispiriting fights that Soraya notes in Tahrir Square are never going to end. They're just going to be institutionalized. That's what the democratic process is supposed to do. It's supposed to allow these arguments to work themselves out through voting and through parliamentary procedure. And that's always going to be the case in a country like Egypt. So that may be very good. It may be very healthy for that particular polity, but it may also be that people observing Egypt from, say, Saudi Arabia or from other Arab countries - and they observe Egyptian politics as being this kind of chaotic melee of contending forces - may say, oh, my God, we don't want any of that without realizing that, in fact, chaos is kind of a handmaiden of liberty, and it's a signal of the health of that system.

CONAN: So whether it goes well or badly, it's likely to have an effect no matter what?

MASOUD: Oh, well, that's for sure. And what I'm saying is could go well in Egypt and still have a negative effect, because people might not like the inherent conflict that comes with democracy.

CONAN: Tarek Masoud, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

MASOUD: Thank you.

CONAN: Tarek Masoud, assistant professor of public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, with us from a studio at Harvard in Cambridge. And, Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, thank you for your time there in Cairo.

NELSON: You're welcome.

CONAN: Coming up on The Opinion Page, columnist Esther Cepeda learns a new word: Hispandering. And in this year's presidential race, she says, both sides are guilty. She joins us next. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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