SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. This week in Egypt, a nation that has been ruled for thousands of years by pharaohs, colonial rulers, military regimes and dictators held its first free election for a national leader. Egyptians went to the polls on Wednesday and Thursday, and though the official results are not yet in, the election is certainly a milestone in the democratic awakening known as the Arab Spring. Here's a selection of voices from Cairo in the week that Egypt voted.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: There'll be some ups and downs, I believe. But it's definitely better than what we've been through for the past 30 years.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And it's very nice to live for the first time in my age the real democracy.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I think it's wonderful to have finally be able to cast one's votes. We have a choice. And I hope that this choice is going to reflect what we need for the time being.
SIMON: Unofficial results indicate that the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohammed Morsi, has likely won a spot in the runoff later this month against Ahmed Shafik, a former aide to former President Mubarak. Now, that would pit the two most divisive contenders against one another for the presidency of Egypt. We're joined by three of NPR's correspondents in the region. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in Egypt; Eleanor Beardsley in Tunis; and Kelly McEvers is covering Syria from Beirut. Thanks for being with us.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you.
KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: You're welcome.
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Yes, you're welcome.
SIMON: Soraya, let's start with you from Egypt, because the election took place. A lot of Egyptians and even people around the world would have thought that would be impossible just a couple of years ago. Help us understand the impact of these elections even taking place.
NELSON: Well, every single TV station, all these new private stations that have popped up since the revolution, have been carrying results. Everybody says that they're somehow getting this information from counting stations. It's just amazing and bizarre. And what's emerged is this intense interest in basically who is going to be the elected leader, I mean, an actual elected leader in this country not someone who's sort of been forced upon people. And so it's something that really has generated an interest even far beyond the parliamentary elections that have happened here.
SIMON: But, as some historians and others have pointed out, voting could be the easy part. It's accepting the results that is sometimes the hard part, particularly for those who lose. What does that look like from there?
NELSON: Well, certainly if the Muslim Brotherhood is correct, I mean, they almost immediately came out and said their candidate, and Ahmed Shafik, who is basically the one who is most closely allied with the ruling generals. This is the last prime minister here in Egypt. Now, if these two end up running against each other, there is going to be a lot of conflict and a lot of teeth gnashing. No one's going to be happy because this is not really what people were envisioning when the revolution took place back in February 2011.
SIMON: Eleanor, you're in Tunis at the moment, where a lot of this got started. They've already had elections. They have a democratically elected government. But did that produce some of the dramatic changes that a lot of people had hoped for?
BEARDSLEY: Well, Scott, like Soraya was saying, the revolution was the joyful, fun part of it, it seems, and afterwards comes the realism, you know. I would say the bloom is a little bit off the rose here. Yes, there's been one huge change that everyone agrees upon; people are free to speak, and people are speaking about anything and everywhere. But, you know, there is disappointment because the economy hasn't changed. It's still very bad. Unemployment is high. And there's a lot of talk about who owns this revolution. We have a coalition government ruling and the majority party is Islamist. And so there's huge discussions about what does it mean to be a Muslim. You know, Tunisian Muslims are traditionally very tolerant and open. There's this new extremist element - these Salafis that have come in. You know, what is the role of women? Traditionally, Tunisian women have been very liberated. They want to keep that status. So, you know, I've been speaking to people who say we feel confused and at a loss. We don't know where we're going. We need a road map.
SIMON: Kelly McEvers, you're in Beirut, but obviously doing a lot of reporting on the situation in Syria. Do Syrians wonder what makes them different so far from Egypt, Tunis, even Libya?
MCEVERS: It's really interesting, you know. Syrians started their uprising not long after, you know, Egypt's uprising came to a head and yet here we are almost 15 months later and the dictator, the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, is still holding onto power. Many people think he has a pretty firm grip on power. And you look at these elections in Egypt and Tunis and you look at the rise of the Islamists and in some ways that makes the regime in Syria even stronger. And it makes a lot of people inside Syria a little bit more weary of what comes next. Syria also is a place that for some time has been very secular and very moderate, quite a number of different ethnic groups and different religious leanings inside Syria. And so I think you have, you know, some of the minority groups in particular - Christians and otherwise - who look at this sort of Sunni-Islamist wave in these other countries and say, hmm, maybe that's not something we want. There's also just sort of the bare facts of the brutality of the crackdown in Syria. I mean, I think that a lot of Syrians look at that and see that that's quite different. I mean, more than any of the other uprising countries put together, we have had thousands of people die in Syria, protesters, and yet they still go out to the streets every single day. They're not going to stop until their dictator falls too.
SIMON: What do you see as the challenges the country you're covering right now is going to be facing over the next year? Soraya, in Egypt?
NELSON: Well, the big one here is going to be the constitution. You know, this country has to define itself. You know, what are the rights going to be for people? Women's rights, just like in Tunisia, it's a huge debate here right now. Certainly women are not participating in politics in this post-revolutionary Egypt in the numbers that they did during Mubarak's time. Granted, they were appointed back then, they had limited power, but now there's nobody here except for a handful, for example, in the parliament. So, this constitutional debate about, you know, what is Egypt? How much does it mesh with Islamic law? You know, what are the rights of minorities here? You know, how are the politics going to work? Is the president going to be a powerful one, like has been the case, or is it going to be more of a parliamentary system? These are questions that the population is going to have to wrangle with for a long time to come.
SIMON: Eleanor Beardsley in Tunis?
MCEVERS: Well, Scott, I think what's at stake here is the soul of Tunisia. This country is going to not fight it out 'cause they're not really fighters but argue it out and debate it out. Is it going to be a secular modern state, albeit a Muslim one, or are extremists going to be able to take over? And a recent poll came out that showed that 42 percent of Tunisians harken back with fond memories to the time of Ben Ali. So, 42 percent said, you know, it was better then, but they've definitely taken the right path. They know that. Everyone is saying this conversation needs to happen but we're Tunisians, we're used to debate. You know, we'll get it right.
SIMON: Kelly McEvers in Beirut covering Syria. A year ago, a lot of people would have said that the Assad regime is on its way out. What do you imagine Syrians are going to be contending with over the next year?
MCEVERS: There's one thing that Syrians are going to be facing in the coming year that almost everyone here in the region agrees, and that is violence. Syria's crackdown on protesters was by far the most violent of all the Arab uprisings. We are above 10,000 people killed now. And I was speaking to an analyst the other day and he said, you know, this is probably a ten-year issue we're looking at in Syria. President Assad probably doesn't have much longer. It's likely that he will fall. Will he fall violently? Will he fall because of sanctions? Will he fall because one of his allies, like Russia, talks him into some kind of abdication of power? Nobody knows the answer to that. But then once he does, because we've got so much violence, then we'll see a transition period that's very dangerous, this analyst told me. And after that we'll see a period where Syria's just basically trying to put itself back together, much like its neighbors, Lebanon and Iraq, that has experienced similar sort of sectarian-based violence.
SIMON: Kelly McEvers in Beirut. Before that, Eleanor Beardsley in Tunisia and Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Egypt. Thank you all very much.
NELSON: You're welcome.
MCEVERS: You're welcome.
BEARDSLEY: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.