VIENNA – Reform leader Mohamed ElBaradei hailed the end of "the culture of fear" as Egyptians voted for their first democratically elected president but said who wins is less important than establishing national unity.
That goal can only be achieved after Egypt's poor are fed, have jobs and have roofs over their heads, ElBaradei, the former head of the U.N. nuclear agency, told The Associated Press in an interview Thursday.
He also said he does not intend to run for Egyptian public office again after quitting the race for the presidency last year.
Becoming president has "never been my priority," he said. "My priority is to make sure that we put the country on the right track. I think I am much more effective working outside the system."
Now in its second day, the presidential vote in Egypt is being cast as defining the nation's future political course, depending on who succeeds longtime authoritarian ruler Hosni Mubarak. There are 13 candidates in the race that is expected to go to a runoff June 16-17 between the two top finishers, with a winner announced June 21.
The president's powers have not yet been defined. Reflecting the divisions that ElBaradei said must be overcome, the country's military rulers, its Islamist-dominated parliament and factions of liberals and secularists have been locked in a struggle over writing a constitution that will define the Egypt's political system, the role of religion and the place of the military.
On the sidelines of a seminar in Vienna on the Arab Spring revolutions, ElBaradei welcomed the election as a potent symbol of democracy after six decades of authoritarian rule in his country.
"The fact that we have an election today of which we do not know the outcome is the first ever in the Arab world I can recall," he said. "The fact is that this Arab spring has taken place and there is no going back ... the culture of fear is no longer. "
But, he added, "we have a long way to go."
ElBaradei shared the Nobel Peace Prize with the International Atomic Energy agency during his tenure as IAEA chief, which ended three years ago. He used that position to appeal for dialogue between Iran and Western powers convinced that Tehran's peaceful public nuclear program was a cover for weapons ambitions. He struck the same tone Thursday, emphasizing the need for Egyptians to listen to each other on their complicated path to democracy.
"I think the most crucial factor is to get Egyptians to understand that they need to agree on the basic common values that they're going to live under for the future," he said, urging Egypt's future leadership to focus on formulating a new constitution.
"Without agreement on a constitution, the (democratic) process would be difficult if not impossible," he said. "Having an election without a constitution is ... like a marriage without a contract."
Even before the months of turmoil that led to the ousting of Mubarak, ravaging key economic sectors like tourism, Egypt was a poor country. It ranked 112th out of 177 nations on the United Nations' Human Development Index last year, and ElBaradei said the more than 40 percent of Egyptians who earn less than $2 a day must be empowered before any democratic progress can be made.
"We should focus on the priorities of satisfying the people's basic needs, which is food on the table, health care, education and housing," he said, dismissing presidential candidates' affiliations as secondary.
"The slogans of the left, right, or center, whether we are a secular state or a religious state, these are not the issues," he said. "I think economic and social development would let a lot of these esoteric discussions evaporate.
"The army is still sitting in one camp, the revolutionary youth is sitting in another, the Islamists, of course are sitting in yet another, while the Average Joe wants to focus on stability, education and health care," he said.
"So you need to get all these people together and tell them, you are going to live together under one roof. Get your act together, try to focus on the basic values that are not going to change, and get everyone to feel comfortable."