Two of the top candidates running to become Egypt’s first post-revolution president have squared off in the Arab world’s first televised presidential debate.
Egyptians crowded around television sets in outdoor cafes for the four-hour debate on Thursday night, aired in two segments over several independent TV channels – a new experiment for Egypt after nearly 30 years of authoritarian rule under former president Hosni Mubarak.
But the most heated moments in the debate between Amr Moussa and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, two of the leading candidates to become the country’s next president focused on their past records as a Mubarak-era senior official and a former member of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood, respectively.
Moussa, who served as Mubarak’s foreign minister and is a former Arab League chairman, pressed former Brotherhood member Aboul Fotouh over his connections to conservative religious groups, suggesting that if his opponent became president the country risked a return to insecurity and terrorism.
Aboul Fotouh countered that Moussa was incapable of carrying out the goals of the revolution that had toppled the former regime he had served.
The two are among 13 candidates competing in the election, due to be held on May 23 and 24. Along with the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohammed Morsi, they are considered frontrunners.
Others include Hamdeen Sabahi, a Nasserist MP of the Dignity Party and longtime opposition journalist, and Khaled Ali, a human rights lawyer favoured by many young progressives.
Moussa, who has been campaigning throughout Egypt since Mubarak’s fall more than a year ago, is considered to be favoured by secularists, liberals and the so-called “silent majority” of the middle and upper class that eventually came to support the revolution but fears more unrest.
Aboul Fotouh, who left the Brotherhood in 2011 over ideological differences and in order to run for president, has pulled together an unlikely coalition of liberals, socialists, and religious conservatives and is seen as perhaps the best chance for the politically unaffiliated youth of the revolution to win a voice in the executive branch.
The debate repeatedly turned combative, as the two candidates, each standing behind a podium, were given time to throw questions at each other.
“My point of reference is the nation, your point of reference is the Brotherhood,” said Moussa, who has sought to appeal to Egyptians worried about the rising power of religious conservatives.
Religious parties, most prominently the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, won more than two-thirds of Egypt’s parliament during months of voting that ended in January. The hardline Salafist Nour Party and its allies won the second-largest share.
Moussa pushed Aboul Fotouh to explain his past affiliation with a branch of the Islamic Group – though it was a different branch that eventually turned to violence – and his stance on implementing Islamic law, suggesting that he had “made commitments” to hard-line Islamists, such as the Salafists.
But Aboul Fotouh fired back, denying any connection to violent groups and attacking Moussa’s own affiliations.
“I want to hear one word of opposition you said under Mubarak’s regime,” he said, pointing out that Moussa had once publicly supported Mubarak for another term as president.
At one Cairo coffeeshop near Tahrir Square, the epicentre 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 – scenes of public support mostly seen in Egypt only around football games.
“This is the first time in the Egyptian and Arab history. We really are changing,” said Ahmed Talaat, a 36-year old accountant. “The uprising is really bearing fruit.”
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 won with more than 90 per cent of the vote.
The two touched on their economic platforms, the role of the military – which runs the country but is due to hand over power to whoever wins the presidency – women’s role in politics and even on their own health and what salary they would take if they won.
But the debate gave Egyptians a taste of the tactics common to presidential contests in the United States and Europe, as each tried to enshrine his image and tarnish the other’s.
Moussa presented himself as the voice of experience who could bring security to a country rocked by turmoil since Mubarak’s fall.
Aboul Fotouh depicted himself as the candidate of the revolution, kicking off the debate by naming those who had been killed by security forces before and during the protests against the regime.
Moussa stepped down from the Arab League post after Mubarak’s fall. He has sought to play up his experience as a diplomat and has played on the fears of many over Islamist domination.
At least one more debate is expected, though it has not been announced which candidates will participate.
If no candidate emerges with a majority in the first round of voting, a run-off between the top two will be held June 16-17.