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Voting Opens In Egypt's Historical Election


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Egypt has lasted as a nation for thousands of years. And in all that time, Egyptians have never quite done what they're doing today. Ordinary citizens have a chance to choose their leaders starting today, a president who will come after generations of pharaohs, sultans, kings, colonial administrators, military leaders, dictators. The winner replaces Hosni Mubarak, who was pushed off stage during last year's revolution.

Assuming the election is fair, the decision belongs to people like Samir Hafiz. He recently returned to Egypt from abroad and voted for the first time at age 72. Here's the kind of president he wants.

SAMIR HAFIZ: Somebody who will keep the country together, somebody to create a lot of work for the youngster. There's a lot youngsters here sitting on the cafes day and night, nothing to do. Better houses, better roads - just to be proud of ourselves that we've done something after all the 60 years of troubles.

INSKEEP: This is the first of two days of voting. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is watching it. And Soraya, where are you right now?

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: I'm in the trendy neighborhood of Zamalek here in Cairo and I'm standing in front of a polling station, where hundreds of men and women are lined up patiently waiting for their turn to cast a ballot. This is something that's very exciting for them, but everything seems very peaceful. There are some police officers as well as soldiers in front to keep the peace, but they look very relaxed as well. Many of these people will probably have to wait hours in order to cast those ballots.

INSKEEP: Now, let me ask about this process, Soraya, because it's been more than a year since Hosni Mubarak left power. There had been votes on various things. There have been votes on changes to the constitution. There have been votes for a parliament. But is this really seen as the big event?

NELSON: This is definitely the big event. I mean this is a country that's used to having a leader monopolize the power, if you will. And so this is a chance for them to actually have a say in who runs the nation. And so that's all people are talking about, whether at beauty salons, restaurants, bars. I mean everyone is arguing about who they should vote for.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about who their options are. I know there are many candidates but who are a couple of the favorites?

NELSON: Well, 13 candidates, even though two of the lesser ones have bowed out, apparently, but there will be 13 on the ballot. Some of the bigger names that we are looking out for is Amr Moussa, the former secretary-general of the Arab League. His big rival is seen to be an Islamist by the name of Abdul Moneim Aboul Fatouh, who is a former Brotherhood leader. He was cast out because he declared his presidency. But he is seen as a moderate. He actually has broad appeal to many of the secular or younger Egyptians.

INSKEEP: So you have a candidate who used to work for Hosni Mubarak. And you have a candidate seen as a moderate Islamist who was part of the Muslim Brotherhood. That's the choice, basically?

NELSON: Well, there are a couple of people who used to work for Mubarak's regime. There's also a candidate by the name of Ahmed Shafiq, a retired air force general, who many here believe is the favorite candidate of the ruling generals who are in charge of Egypt right now. And many are worried that if this election is, in fact, not fair, that this man will get the vote.

INSKEEP: Is there any indication so far as to whether things are proceeding smoothly and fairly?

NELSON: That appears to be the case - I mean it is somewhat early. But officials have made many changes to the way elections have been done here in the past, even the more recent parliamentary elections. They have different ballots with serial numbers. They have different ballot boxes with multiple seals that also have serial numbers.

INSKEEP: There are also independent election observers, is that right?

NELSON: There are. Not as many as they were during the parliamentary elections. But there are even foreign ones. They will be monitoring the stations. They will obviously not be able to be at every one. There are something in excess of 10,000 stations across Egypt.

But there are monitors. And certainly the candidates themselves are doing the best they can to monitor the situation, 'cause they want to make sure there's no fraud either.

INSKEEP: And one last thing, Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson. This is not actually an election day. Its election days, right? They're going to vote over a couple of days. How does that work?

NELSON: Well, absolutely. Today is the first day. There's one more day tomorrow. If you have no one getting over 50 percent of the vote, the two top vote getters will be in a runoff on June 16 at June 17. After which a final winner will be announced.

INSKEEP: OK. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is watching an election unfold in Egypt for the presidency of that country. Soraya, thanks very much

NELSON: You're welcome, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.