In an election race that’s increasingly become more about labels than policy, the tactics used by the two front running candidates on Thursday night was no surprise.
Amr Moussa, who served a decade under former President Hosni Mubarak, was painted by Abol Fotouh as a remnant of the old regime who has nothing new to offer the country.
Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, once a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was painted by Amr Moussa as an untrustworthy closet hardliner who flip-flops on policies in order to capture the young, secular vote.
Both men played to the well known fears of the electorate and as a result both will have failed to tap into the others support base. Perhaps this was too much to ask given how wide the gap is between the two candidates.
In the end, Thursday night came down to a battle of old versus new.
Amr Moussa played his trump card near the end, stressing the country is in crisis and needs someone with experience to lead.
This resonates well – to a point. Egyptians know this experience was gained under the very regime over 1000 people were killed trying to bring down.
Aboul Fotouh tried to come across as the ‘revolution’s candidate.’ He started the debate by paying his respects to those who have lost their lives during and after the uprising.
He was, surprisingly perhaps, being the rookie of the two, calm comfortable and confident. If this was about which candidate you’d rather be friends with, Aboul Fotouh would win over Amr Moussa’s often pit-bull, arrogant style.
But Aboul Fotouh’s biggest problem is that he is, relative to Moussa, an unknown and as a result many don’t trust him.
He has been endorsed by the ultra conservative Salafi Dawa (or Calling) as well as by secular young Liberals like Wael Ghonim.
This was precisely the spot Amr Moussa hit, trying to force Aboul Fotouh into making definitive statements on controversial religious issues such as conversion and the place of Islamic law.
Too ‘Islamist’ sounding he’ll lose the secular vote (and more importantly the vote of a growing number of people in this country who don’t want both the Parliament and Presidency dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood).
Not ‘Islamist’ enough and he risks isolating the Salafis who are a significant portion of the electorate and whose vote you can pretty much count on if you have the Dawa’s endorsement.
In the end I’m not sure many minds were changed after the four and a half hour debate – those who went in as Moussa supporters came out saying he did better and the same thing goes for Aboul Fotouh’s supporters who claim he had the upper hand.
The real winners on Thursday night, however corny it sounds, are the Egyptian people.
Their revolution was about a demand to be treated with dignity, recognized as citizens who the state should protect and seek legitimacy from.
After decades of not being given the choice who to vote for as if their opinions don’t matter at all, Thursday night Egyptians saw who is probably going to be their next President stand up for hours fighting for their vote.
Whether you were watching in a mansion in Heliopolis or a shack in Tanta, these men need and want your approval to win. That is what made this debate historic.