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Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood Takes Early Lead in First Post-Mubarak Elections

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Early results from Egypt’s first post-revolutionary elections indicate the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party will emerge as the biggest winner. We speak with Democracy Now! special correspondent Anjali Kamat, who has just returned to the United States after reporting in Cairo since the fall of former president Hosni Mubarak. Anjali describes how Egypt’s elections take place against the backdrop of economic insecurity and renewed street clashes between pro-democracy demonstrators and security forces that have left more than 40 dead and thousands injured. She also discusses Egypt’s use of U.S.-supplied tear gas to quell massive demonstrations, and a photo she took of police dragging protesters injured by rubber bullets and live ammunition, then leaving them in piles of garbage. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to Egypt, where elections are underway to determine the country’s first post-Mubarak government. Egypt’s election commission says it will announce results from the first round of the three-stage parliamentary election later today. According to preliminary returns trickling in from Cairo, Alexandria and seven other regions, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party seems set to emerge as the biggest winner. Some analysts estimate the group will capture about 40 percent of seats in the new legislature. Dr. Mohamed Morsi, leader of the group’s Freedom and Justice Party, held a news conference on Tuesday in Cairo saying the elections were proceeding well.

DR. MOHAMED MURSI: [translated] So far the election process is going ahead in a very good atmosphere. The election process now allows Egyptian people to express their opinions with full freedom. The statistics for participation are very high, as I said, and are looking good, and there are still five hours to go until polls close. We believe that the numbers will rise for the second day. And the security situation is good.

JUAN GONZALEZ: For many first-time voters, the elections represented the essence of the Egyptian revolt that toppled longtime president Hosni Mubarak in February. However, some voters said the elections were not as free and fair as they could be.

NASSER MAHFUZ: [translated] There were obvious lawless actions, but as we reported these to the concerned authorities, such as the Higher Committee for Election, the armed forces or whoever, they did not respond.

AMY GOODMAN: Some protesters calling for an election boycott are carrying out a sit-in in front of the Parliament and in Tahrir Square. Egypt’s elections are taking place against the backdrop of renewed street clashes between pro-democracy demonstrators and security forces that have left more than 40 people dead and thousands injured.

Now the Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper reports another protester injured during the clashes last week has died. Ahmed Badawy was 39 years old. He was wounded when a shotgun pellet penetrated his stomach and a rubber bullet hit his leg. Al-Masry said Badawy was previously injured during the protests against Mubarak on the 28th of January, when he was hit by a diplomatic vehicle.

There was widespread relief that the first round of polling involved little serious violence. Instead, a higher-than-expected turnout saw millions lining up to cast their ballots. Although it’s too early to tell, there has been no evidence of the systematic vote rigging that became a hallmark of elections under the Mubarak regime.

Well, for more on Egypt, we’re very happy to have our very own Anjali Kamat back in studio. She flew in from Cairo last night, where she was wrapping up her year as Democracy Now!’s special correspondent. Today, Anjali is here not only to talk about what has happened in Egypt but also her reporting on Libya during the fall of Gaddafi. And also we will talk about her trip back home to India.

Anjali, it’s so great to see you again after almost a year, when you first headed to India, which we’ll talk about later. But then, as the protests erupted, you raced to Cairo, Egypt, where you have been for most of this year.

ANJALI KAMAT: Yeah, that’s right. It’s very strange to be back in the United States. It’s an exciting moment to be back, though, given all that’s happening with the Occupy movement.

As you mentioned, the elections, I think, are a very important, possible game changer in what’s happening in the transition period in Egypt over the past nine months. What we’ve seen over the past nine months is not—you know, despite all the excitement that people had on February 11th, when the former president, Hosni Mubarak, was toppled, you had a situation where the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces—SCAF, as it’s popularly known in Egypt—became the ruling military council guiding the transition. And during this nine-month period, since February to now, criticism of SCAF has only been growing louder. Initially, I think people who were in Tahrir Square—people might remember one of the popular chants was that the army and the people are one hand. And there was a real sense of relief that the army said they would not fire on protesters and took the side of the people against Mubarak. But in this intervening period, I think a lot of that trust has been lost among a large number of people in Egypt. We’ve seen repeated sit-ins in the square, repeated negotiations between different political parties and SCAF about how much power is the ruling military council actually willing to cede. The council, which is U.S.-backed, which receives $1.3 billion in U.S. aid a year, has said repeatedly that it does not—has no interest in holding on to power, but its actions have, you know, led many to question how true this is.

And most recently, just last week, right before I was planning to leave—I actually postponed my ticket because of this—there were violent clashes right around Tahrir Square and an enormous show of support in Tahrir. Last Tuesday, there was a call for a million person march, and the square was full. People came out in very large numbers from across the city. And there were also protests in many other parts of the country, not just in Cairo. And while all these people were gathered in the square, there are violent clashes going on with security forces firing intense amounts of U.S.-made tear gas on protesters and protesters fighting back with rocks and sometimes Molotov cocktails. My colleague Sharif, I know, has been on the show and talked about how Tahrir became like a giant field hospital. There were 14 small field hospitals set up. And 42 people died during this period. You mentioned today that the one protester just succumbed to his injuries, bringing up the number of the dead to 42, and about three—over 3,000 have been injured. And it’s within this context that elections took place.

So I think a lot of people were perhaps relieved that the violence came to an end and that there’s been some sort of a return to peace and calm, and the elections did take place remarkably peacefully. There were no clashes reported, despite widespread fears of chaos and clashes. But I think some people—you mentioned that there’s a small group of people boycotting the elections. There are a small group of activists who are very critical of holding the elections when the military council is still in power. But I think what we have now with the elections showing—at least this first phase of elections—a pretty decisive win for the Islamist political forces—that’s political parties that use Islamic language, religious language, to political ends. And this is a wide number of parties, but the largest is the Freedom and Justice Party, which is a party of the Muslim Brotherhood, that was banned for decades. And also the Salafist Nour Party had a very strong showing, which I think was the big surprise. And what you have from now on forward is, as the elections come to an end—

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the Salafists are even more conservative, and—

ANJALI KAMAT: That’s right, more conservative than the Muslim Brotherhood, a more conservative branch of Islam. And what’s interesting is, if you do have an Islamist-dominated parliament, what are the concessions they’re going to try and win with SCAF? Because the political battle with SCAF is going to continue over the next few months. The one concession that people got from this week of clashes and sit-ins is that SCAF said that it would cede power, and there would be presidential elections no later than July 2012, which previously there hadn’t been a clear timeline, and it looked like it might even take until 2013 for there to be presidential elections. But they’re still in discussions right now.

They’ve appointed a new prime minister, Kamal Ganzouri, who was a former prime minister under Mubarak, and he is supposed to appoint a new cabinet. And already, Freedom and Justice Party members, Muslim Brotherhood members, are saying that they want to have a role in selecting the new cabinet, the new government. So they’re pushing SCAF on that. So it’s going to be interesting to see, now that there’s an elected representative, regardless of what its powers actually might be, how they’ll push for more changes.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Anjali, I wanted to ask you about the impact of the repression since the toppling of Mubarak. Your sense of what impact that may have had on the actual election results? Twelve thousand people jailed—obviously these were activists, political activists. Is there any sense whether the—who the military was targeting? Was it more liberal activists? Was it equally among Muslims of the Brotherhood, for example, as well as liberals? And to what degree, because, I mean, 12,000 people is a lot of people to take out of an election process. In essence, these would have been the organizers of voters. To what degree that has had an impact on these results?

ANJALI KAMAT: I mean, I don’t think there’s been a direct impact on the results. Egypt is a country of 85 million people, and about half of those people are eligible voters. So, 12,000—

JUAN GONZALEZ: And about what percent you figure voted?

ANJALI KAMAT: I think the numbers that are coming out is between 30 and 40 percent. The ruling military council suggested a couple days ago that it was much higher. But most analysts seem to be sticking to the lower end of 30 to 40 percent.

I mean, there were certainly the—the military trials of 12,000 people certainly created a lot of outrage. That’s only increased over—in recent months. And, you know, one of the most famous cases is Maikel Nabil, who’s I think entering his hundredth day of a hunger strike. And he was targeted for a comment he made on his blog and on Facebook. So a lot of those who have been targeted—

AMY GOODMAN: Which was…?

ANJALI KAMAT: Which was for saying the army and the people are not one hand, a post very critical of the military. And a lot of those who have been targeted are indeed bloggers, activists, liberal activists, some of them Islamist activists. But pretty much the sense is that it is difficult to openly criticize the military. People continue to do it, and in very large numbers, but there is a price to be paid for that.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, then come back. Anjali Kamat, Democracy Now! special correspondent, back from almost a year where she has been covering the uprising in the post-revolution period in Cairo, Egypt, that continues to unfold. She returned from Cairo last night. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest for the hour is Democracy Now! special correspondent, who has just returned from Cairo last night, Anjali Kamat. Well, the U.S. embassy in Cairo has announced that future exports of U.S.-made tear gas could be blocked if the Egyptian authorities continue to use it to cause death and injury. The Obama administration faced scrutiny after Egypt’s Interior Ministry ordered 21 tons of tear gas from the U.S. following days of mass protests against military rule. The countless tear gas canisters, the majority of them American-made by a company called Combined Systems, were launched by security forces at civilians, causing serious injuries. On Tuesday, State Department spokesperson Mark Toner was questioned about the shipments.

REPORTER: I want to go back to something that was raised last Tuesday about some reports that the Egyptian military have been using tear gas, American-made tear gas, against the protesters. And while I know that Toria said that there weren’t any pending independent company wishes to sell directly to the Egyptian military, there was—State was looking into this. And my question is, do we know whether there are any pending sales from U.S. companies, apart from government weapon sales? And specifically, do we know whether the U.S. has ever approved the sale of something called Combined Tactical Systems 6230 Riot CS Smoke? I guess it’s a brand of tear gas.

MARK TONER: I’m not sure I can get into that level of detail, but, you know, as I think Toria specified last week, no U.S. security assistance funds have been used for the purchase of tear gas by the Egyptian government. We have approved previous licenses for the export of tear gas to the Egyptian Interior Ministry, and that was paid for with Egyptian funds. And the—our understanding—and maybe this speaks to the type of tear gas that you just asked about—our understanding is that the tear gas approved for export has been the type of—that’s used by police forces in many countries around the world. We certainly would condemn the misuse, any misuse, of tear gas anywhere that could result in death or injury.

REPORTER: But Mark, considering with the violence we saw last week and the fact that you’ve got, what, a 21-ton shipment, three part, arriving now, some of it in Suez right now, doesn’t that kind of send a mixed message from the U.S. government? I mean, I know, on one hand, the U.S. embassy in Cairo this morning tweeted, “U.S. security assistance funds were not being used for tear gas. That’s a genuine fact.” Another tweet said the U.S. is providing humanitarian assistance to victims but has condemned excessive force. But what does that say then, when you’ve got tear gas shipments arriving in the Port of Suez with “Made in the U.S.A.” on the side of them?

MARK TONER: Well, you know, it’s—again, as I said, these are—this tear gas is approved for export to many countries around the world. It’s used by police forces in many countries around the world, including our own.

REPORTER: But you’ve seen instances—

MARK TONER: Including our own.

REPORTER: —haven’t you, in the past week or so—

MARK TONER: Including our own.

REPORTER: —where it’s been misused?

MARK TONER: Right. Let me just finish with my last point, which was saying that, you know, we certainly condemn the misuse of tear gas that would result in death or injury. And any kind of misuse to that extent would certainly cause us to—give us pause, I think, and has the potential to jeopardize future exports.

REPORTER: So what can be done, then?

REPORTER: You do believe that it’s been misused in Egypt, tear gas?

MARK TONER: You know, it’s really—a lot of the evidence and the stories that we’ve heard have been circumstantial, so I’m really hesitant to—

REPORTER: But you were looking into it, though.

MARK TONER: —pass judgment.

AMY GOODMAN: That was State Department spokesperson Mark Toner being questioned about the use of U.S.-made tear gas, particularly a company, Combined Systems, based in Jamestown, Pennsylvania. Anjali, talk about the effect of the tear gas and what you just heard Toner saying.

ANJALI KAMAT: Well, I think it’s remarkable that Toner said it’s OK to use the tear gas because we use it here, as well, in the U.S. It’s used in other countries, and it’s—you know, we use it here, so why—it doesn’t matter if Egypt uses it. But the way the tear gas was used in Tahrir, whether in January, late January, January 28th, or now, the past week, it’s been excessive.

I visited the morgue in—one of the main morgues, state morgues, in Cairo, called Zainhum. This was exactly a week ago, on Monday night. And there were 26 dead bodies in the morgue, who had—they had all been killed in the previous three days, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Of those who were killed, three of them died from asphyxiation because of the excessive use of tear gas. We’re still waiting for the final reports, but, you know, this is something that certainly needs to be investigated. Everybody who was in Tahrir looked at the canisters, the tear gas canisters. Every—the young men who were fighting, the women who were throwing rocks, all of them showed me empty canisters. They were showing them to journalists and people all over. And all of them said, “Made in the U.S.A.”

I think, you know, it’s incumbent upon the State Department to come up with a better analysis of what we’re doing, selling this kind of tear gas to a country that uses tear gas in a way on—in such an excessive way on people who are demanding, you know, a transition to civilian democracy, because that’s what this is about. And as long as the U.S. continues to support an unrepresentative military junta, these kind of protests are not going to stop. They might calm down for a bit; now that there’s elections, there might be a turn to more political negotiations. But people are going to return to the streets if the military junta does not make very clear steps towards transitioning to a real, accountable, representative, civilian democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: Your picture, I just wanted to mention, Anjali, that went viral, that you took in Cairo. Describe it for us, where you were, and what we’re seeing, with people being dragged by security forces into garbage, into piles of garbage.

ANJALI KAMAT: Yeah. That picture was taken, I think, at 5:04 p.m. on Sunday night, Sunday evening, Cairo time. It was just minutes after the Central Security Forces and military police came into Tahrir Square and raided the square, emptying it out of people. So, the way Tahrir is set up is it’s this giant square in the middle of the city with roads leading into it from all around, and one of those roads was where—which leads to the Interior Ministry, is where most of the fighting took place. So there was a large crowd of people on that street, Mohamed Mahmoud, where people were fighting. And excessive tear gas was being used, rubber bullets—some cases, live ammunition, though the military council continues to deny this, as well as the Interior Ministry continues to deny this. And for a while it was just a back and forth. And then, all of a sudden, the Central Security Forces and the military police came into the square from that road, and people started rushing.

I was on one of the side streets, got heavily tear-gassed, so I ran down another side street and was standing on that very street corner where I took the picture, when—just to take a breath and assuming that things would calm down in a minute, and I saw the entire square fleeing, all running, and saw the security forces trucks coming in. So I rushed across the street, and there’s a friend, a wonderful man, Pierre Sioufi, who has an apartment right overlooking the square, where a lot of activists gather, and it’s been a real place of refuge. And I ran up there and took the picture from his balcony. We were all shaking and, you know, very upset, because it—you could see the security forces firing into the crowds and crowds running. And you had this crush of people right on that street corner. I think a previous image you showed just showed that. And then, as people left, there was just bodies lying there, eight bodies left. And I’ve been trying to find out if they were killed or if they were unconscious or what happened. I still don’t have a clear answer as to what happened to them.

And there’s a video that some people who were on the balcony also took of, at that same moment, of policemen dragging bodies and dumping them into that garbage pile right there. It was an extremely disturbing thing to witness. And that video, I think, got very many hits. This picture got around very much. And several people who came to the square the next day, several revolutionary youth associations called for a million person march the next day. And when people came, a lot of them said they came because they saw that video and they saw that picture.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Anjali, in terms of these elections now and what it means in terms of the future direction of the country, I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about what the economic situation has been like the past year, because, obviously, with so many protests and so much repression, there has got to have been a major impact on the daily living standards of the people of Egypt, and a sense, at some point, that people want some normalcy in their lives.

ANJALI KAMAT: Yeah, I mean, this is the thing. It’s—there’s really, in some ways, a tug-of-war between people who want to complete the revolution, who see this as an incomplete revolution. And I think many people do see that in this way. But there’s also a lot of people—you know, large unemployment figures, large poverty figures in Egypt—whose standards of living have not improved at all since the revolution. And the economy has taken a very big hit since the revolution. And it’s very hard to keep convincing people of the need to come out and be in the square, to keep protesting, when they have seen very little improvement in their daily lives. And there’s this—when the state media, which is controlled by the military council now, you know, keeps emphasizing the need for stability and security, it’s something that people do take to heart and people do want. There is this—the past nine months have been very unpredictable. There’s been explosions of violence. You know, every few months, something happens. In October, there was the incident that happened in front of the state media building, in front of Maspero, where a number—the military ran over people, and 27 mostly Coptic Christian protesters were killed. And there’s very little accountability that follows. There’s really a sense of impunity. So there’s a very righteous sense of outrage among activists and those who are following these issues very closely. But on the other side, because there’s so little improvement in the economic situation, you know, I think people are—some people feel that, you know, the most important thing to have is stability.

Having said that, there’s also been an unprecedented wave of strikes that have sort of continued since the revolution. We’ve had several guests on who have talked about the very strong labor movement before the revolution, that led up to the revolution, and that were critical during the revolution. These have continued in the past several months, with the doctors’ associations going on a nationwide general strike, public school teachers, transit workers. So, you know, you’ve had people coming out in very large numbers, demanding higher wages, demanding better working conditions. So there is a sense that, you know, people feel empowered to come out and demand their rights and improve their economic situation. And I think a lot of people make the argument that if we—you know, if Egypt does see a transition to civilian rule sooner rather than later, that’s only going to help the economy and create a sense of stability.

AMY GOODMAN: So, at this point, the word is that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party has something like 40 percent of the seats that were run for. And explain exactly. That’s not 40 percent of the seats in the parliament, because only a portion of the seats were up now.

ANJALI KAMAT: Yeah, the voting system that’s been put in place in Egypt has been a bit of a mystery to most people in Egypt, even experts. It’s being conducted—it’s the first historically free elections in Egypt, so people are very excited about it and very excited about taking part. But it’s been quite confounding to most. It’s a three-stage election. And every stage, it’s spread out across three months. And there’s—within each stage, there’s different districts that go to the polls. And at each stage, there’s a list system as well as individuals. So when people go to vote, you vote for a party list as well as individuals. And, you know, the results we’ve seen so far are just from the first stage, which included voters from Cairo, Alexandria, the Red Sea, and several other smaller towns in Egypt. And the results, yes, you’re seeing a very large showing for the Muslim Brotherhood.

JUAN GONZALEZ: It would seem to me that because there is a three-stage process, that this actually favors anyone who’s got any kind of a major organization, because what will happen now is the Brotherhood’s cadre, or their activists, will be able to shift from those districts that participated in the first election and move to the second stage districts and the third stage districts. So you don’t really need a national organization. As long as you have any kind of an organization, you will have a disproportionate impact because of the way the election is broken up, instead of having everyone vote on the same day. That would require either a level of organization for the people to vote on their own without party leaders trying to get them out to the polls one way or another.

ANJALI KAMAT: Yeah, that’s right. And the Muslim Brotherhood is the most organized political force right now in Egypt. And I think it’s no surprise. I think everyone expected them to do very well in the elections. And that’s why they were pushing very hard to have elections, not to postpone elections. After the horrible violence of last week that left 42 people dead, a number of people were thinking about possibly, you know, calling for the elections to be postponed or perhaps boycotting, or some campaigns, some parties suspended their campaigns, including Asmaa Mahfouz from April 6. She suspended her campaign. She was running as an individual candidate in one part of Cairo. But, you know, they were very insistent on the elections taking place, and they received a lot of flak for that from activists who were very critical. But it’s likely that, yeah, they will continue to do well.

Even the round of elections that just took place, several people noted that there were Brotherhood volunteers at every poll station across the country, helping people, not necessarily campaigning, because that’s technically illegal. But because it’s so complicated, people weren’t sure where exactly to go. And they had iPads and were telling people where they should go. And they would write down the number of their polling booth on a little piece of paper that had the list of their candidates.

AMY GOODMAN: I got a chance to talk to Asmaa Mahfouz when she came to New York to address Occupy Wall Street. Asmaa Mahfouz, the 26-year-old young woman who, right before the January 25th protest, made this video, her head covered, not her face covered, naming herself, very brave—Mubarak is still in power—telling people to come down to Tahrir. She became very well known for these videos. And she talked about running. This was Asmaa down at Wall Street.

ASMAA MAHFOUZ: I’m now—I’m running for parliament elections. Maybe someday I can run for the presidency.

AMY GOODMAN: And what platform are you running on? What are you promising?

ASMAA MAHFOUZ: My policy is called Egyptian Stream. Its ideology for the Egyptian Stream is very neutral.

AMY GOODMAN: Egyptians…?

ASMAA MAHFOUZ: Stream. Yeah, and we believe that we can make any change, [if] the people is coming with us, and to become one hand to build our new Egypt.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think of Occupy Wall Street? You’re looking at it right now. You just addressed it.

ASMAA MAHFOUZ: It’s a small—

UNIDENTIFIED: Tahrir Square.

ASMAA MAHFOUZ: Yeah, it’s a small Tahrir Square, really.

UNIDENTIFIED: As soon as she came—I was talking to her—she was like, “Oh, no, let me go. Let me go around. Let me go and feel it.”

ASMAA MAHFOUZ: Yeah, I would like to go to—under any tent here, to join, yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED: She wants to go, like, in any tent, so she can get her memories back.

ASMAA MAHFOUZ: Yeah, it’s great. Really, it’s great. And all the people here is great and very brave and strong.

AMY GOODMAN: And what message do you have for young women today?

ASMAA MAHFOUZ: You are very strong. Women are stronger than men, really. This is not just words. But the reality is the women have many things can do, in life and for change and for freedom. So don’t—you have to believe in your own power. If you don’t believe in your own power, you couldn’t change anything. So you have to believe in yourself, because you are very, very strong.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you very much.


AMY GOODMAN: That was Asmaa Mahfouz at Occupy Wall Street. And Anjali, she did run for parliament, but…?

ANJALI KAMAT: I believe she suspended her campaign and was one of the few candidates who did. Some of the other parties also suspended their campaigns during the period of turmoil in Tahrir last week. She didn’t win the seat. I believe Amr Hamzawy, a liberal candidate, won in that district. It’s interesting, because in that one district there were three liberal candidates who were running: her; a very popular, well-known blogger who goes by the name Sandmonkey; and Amr Hamzawy, a liberal political figure. And I believe that Amr won that seat.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back. Democracy Now! special correspondent Anjali Kamat, back from Cairo, Egypt, last night. The results are coming in. It looks like, of the people who voted, something like 40 percent of the seats that were up have gone to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists.

ANJALI KAMAT: No, the Salafists took an additional 25 percent.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Additional 25.

AMY GOODMAN: Which was the bigger surprise, is that right?

ANJALI KAMAT: The big—the real surprise, yeah, that the liberals came in third. I think most people assumed that the contest would really be between the Brotherhood and the liberal bloc, the Egyptian Bloc, Kotla Masria. But the Salafists did very well, possibly because Alexandria was also in this round and the Salafists, the Nour Party, is based in Alexandria. But we’ll see in the coming rounds whether they can—

AMY GOODMAN: And their platform?

ANJALI KAMAT: It’s hard to tell right now. But it’s—you know, people are very concerned about the Salafists for their conservative worldview. On the other hand, bringing them into the mainstream of politics, I think people feel like, you know, this is a political game, and people are going to make concessions, and, you know, really imposing—I don’t think anyone is really worried that they’re going to try and impose sharia on Egypt or try and transform the country into a very—you know, into a Taliban kind of state. That’s not on the—you know, that’s not what people are afraid of at all. I think people’s fears are that any of these parties that win will continue to cut deals with the ruling military council and sell out the people.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Anjali Kamat. Back in a minute.

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