Eve of Historic Vote in Egypt

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is "The World", a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH Boston. Today is the eve of historic elections in Egypt. It's the first time in the country's history that voters have a real opportunity to choose their President freely. Thirteen candidates are in the race and the outcome is far from clear, but the leading figures are Islamists and former regime officials. The World's Matthew Bell is in Cairo. Matthew, what's the mood like today?

Matthew Bell: The mood is excitement. A lot of people are really excited about voting tomorrow. At the same time, there's a lot of confusion, there's a lot of uncertainty about the process and about even what the role of the President will be that they're going to be voting for. But genuinely you just go around town, you see the posters everywhere, everyone's talking about the election, people are asking each other, "Who are you voting for?" There's a real excitement in the air.

Werman: And after years of one party ruling Egypt, for all intents and purposes, remind us what the importance of this presidential election really is.

Bell: Well, of course, you had Hosni Mubarak who was in power for thirty years. He started to groom his son, Gamal. Many Egyptians believed that he was going to be the next leader of the country which really rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. Events started in January of last year. Really, it was hard to predict, you know. There weren't many people at all that saw this coming when it did. I got here the night before the Tahrir Square was really taken for good on that Friday of January 28th last year, and even activists told me, "We're just not sure what's going to happen tomorrow." I think it surprised a lot of people, and here we are, you know, decades in the making. Many people have confidence that at least this is going be an election where their vote is going to count and the potential is there for some good to come out of it.

Werman: Right. I mean when you think about the evolution from the past year, it's pretty extraordinary. Tomorrow, on the ballot, thirteen candidates. Is there a clear frontrunner?

Bell: The polls are not very reliable, but there are four or five candidates that are considered to be the front runners, that more people are talking about. There's more attention on them in the media and just, in my experience, talking to people, these names just definitely come up. I should say so too, Marco, that there is a minority of people who aren't happy about the election. Some of the activists that took part in the revolution last year, they see this as illegitimate because it's all happening under military rule, that they see a direct line from Mubarak to the military. They feel that this transition has been a disaster and they don't want to give legitimacy to the military rulers by taking part in this vote, but, again, they're definitely a minority.

Werman: Now, An Egyptian court, Matthew, sentenced five policemen to ten years each in prison today for their role in killing protesters in the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak. It's the first such conviction against the force that was blamed for hundreds of deaths. How important is this sentencing, especially as it comes on the eve of this auspicious election?

Bell: I think it's significant, Marco. "The martyrs" as they call them, the people who were killed during that eighteen day revolution are definitely talked about with a sense of real reverence here. At many demonstrations around the country people will have, family members of the martyrs will be there and there will be signs and people will talk about the martyrs and talk about the need for justice for them, for their family members, and the police force is a very much hated institution here in Egypt, has been for a long time, not just since the revolution. So on the one hand this is significant, but I think a lot of people will be frustrated because it took so long for these convictions to happen. More than eight hundred people were killed, as you mentioned, and here is a handful of these guys that have been convicted at this point.

Werman: The World's Matthew Bell speaking to us from Cairo on the eve of a historic presidential vote there.