Two front-runners in the up-coming Egyptian election, a former foreign minister and a moderate Islamist, have squared off in the Arab world’s first ever presidential debate, trading barbs over the role of religion in society and how to bring democratic reform to the country.
Egyptians crowded round television sets in outdoor cafes for the four-hour debate, which aired on Thursday evening on several independent TV channels — a startling new experiment for the north African nation after nearly 30 years of authoritarian rule under former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted last year after a wave of widespread protests.
For most of Mubarak’s rule, he was re-elected in referendums in which he was the only candidate. The last presidential election, in 2005, was the first to allow multiple candidates, but Mubarak was considered a certain winner and campaigning was weak — and direct debate was out of the question.
The debate, which ran well past midnight, pitted former Egyptian foreign minister Amr Moussa, who served under Mubarak for 10 years until becoming head of the Arab League in 2001, against moderate Islamist Abdel--Moneim Abolfotoh, who broke with the Muslim Brotherhood last year. The two are among 13 candidates competing in the election, which is scheduled to begin on May 23.
The debate repeatedly turned combative, as the two candidates, each standing behind a podium, were also given time to asked each other questions.
Abolfotoh sought to taint Moussa as a key member and supporter of Mubarak’s regime. Moussa, in turn, painted Abolfotoh as beholden to the Muslim Brotherhood and hard-line Islamists.
“My point of reference is the nation, your point of reference is the Brotherhood,” the 76-year-old Moussa, who has sought to appeal to Egyptians worried about the rising power of Islamists, told his rival.
He pushed Abolfotoh to explain his stance on implementing Islamic Shariah law, suggesting that he had “made commitments” to hardline Islamists.
“I want to hear one word of opposition you said under Mubarak’s regime,” Abolfotoh, 60, shot back, pointing out that Moussa said in 2010 that he would back Mubarak for another term as president.
At one Cairo coffee shop near Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the protests that brought down Mubarak, supporters of either candidates broke out in claps and cheers when either candidate hit on the other’s perceived weakness.
“This is the first time in Egyptian and Arab history, we really are changing,” said Ahmed Talaat, a 36-year old accountant. “The uprising is really bearing fruit.”
The two politicians both touched on their economic platforms, the role of the military — which is scheduled to hand over power to whoever wins the presidency, the role of women in politics and even their own health and what salary they would take if they won.
The debate gave Egyptians a taste of the tactics common to presidential face-offs in the US and Europe, with each trying to enshrine his own image. Moussa presented himself as the voice of experience able to bring security to a country rocked by turmoil since Mubarak’s fall.
Abolfotoh depicted himself as the candidate of the revolution — kicking off the debate with praise for the “martyrs” killed by security forces and troops in protests against Mubarak and against the military that took his place in power.