CAIRO, Egypt — Egypt’s two leading presidential candidates faced off Thursday night in the country’s first televised debate, intensifying an already turbulent race for the nation’s top post.
Abdel Meneim Aboul Fotouh, a moderate Islamist candidate, and Amr Moussa, a secular-liberal contender, traded barbs — sometimes heated — for four hours on the privately-owned ON TV television channel to a audience of millions across Egypt.
Egyptians gathered in street-side cafes to watch the debate, one of the first in the Arab world — Mauritania held a televised presidential debate in 2007 — and the first since a wave of popular uprisings ousted despotic leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya last year.
“This is a great thing for Egypt. We have been waiting for this for a long time,” said Mohammed Said, a science teacher in Cairo, Egypt's capital.
The debate showed the extent to which a new political openness, despite some setbacks under the military-led transition, has emerged in Egypt since protesters overthrew former President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011.
If all goes well, the winner will serve as Egypt’s first fairly elected civilian president.
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“[The debate], it was political theater but it was significant,” said Hani Sabra, a Middle East analyst at the New York-based Eurasia Group, a global political risk and research consulting firm. “It allowed television viewers to see the candidates on display rather than just in posters. It’s clear that it’s sort of a competitive race.”
Answering questions from both moderators and each other, the candidates tackled everything from the role of Islamic law to the military budget and virginity tests, crafting their distinct styles and consolidating positions on key issues like the minimum wage and healthcare reform.
Each played to their own political bases — Aboul Fotouh to Islamists and young revolutionaries keen for a fresh face, and Amr Moussa to those fearful of Muslim fundamentalists and yearning for stability.
In an age-old political strategy — to “burnish your own credentials by discrediting your opponent’s,” according to Sabra — both candidates slammed the other’s political history to shore up support.
Aboul Fotouh repeatedly criticized Amr Moussa, once Egypt’s minister of foreign affairs, as complicit in the crimes of a broken, corrupt system that sparked the uprising.
“When it [the regime] fell down, we all took it down,” Moussa said, defending the jab from Aboul Fotouh. “It was a complete public revolution.”
Moussa, for his part, tried to paint Aboul Fotouh as a dangerous Islamist and lackey of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Aboul Fotouh was suspended from the Brotherhood when he defied them by announcing his bid for the presidency last year. The Brotherhood is floating its own candidate, Mohamed Morsi, who is doing poorly in the polls. He declined to participate in the debate.
“I was imprisoned three times” as a member of the Brotherhood and opposition activist, Aboul Fotouh fired back. “Everyone knows who is respectful and who isn’t, who worked for Egypt and who didn’t.”
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The candidates sparred over whether Israel is in fact an enemy — Aboul Fotouh said yes, Amr Moussa said no, but that he would revisit the Egypt-Israel peace treaty — and over how much influence Islamic law should have over the future Egyptian state.
Neither candidate criticized the military, which has played a dominant political role in Egypt since 1952. Since the revolution, many Egyptians have openly accused the military of reverting to Mubarak-style tactics and being disingenuous about its commitment to a handing power over to civilians.
The military seeks to maintain some of its key privileges, including its lucrative economic investments. It also wants to protect its famously secretive budget from civilian oversight.
Aboul Fotouh said any government-led curbs to the military’s power would be made in conjunction with the military itself. Moussa spoke of the Egyptian army’s “need for self-sufficiency,” a remark some analysts said was meant to reassure military leaders that it’s businesses would not be touched.
It worried some activists that even though Egypt will be electing a new president, no candidate is willing or able to stand-up to the military.
“What they said about the military was rather unsurprising,” Sabra said. “Both of them understand that the Egyptian military is a very powerful political actor, and that alienating it is not beneficial to their aspirations.”
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The elections are set to begin on May 23, with a run-off schedule to begin on June 16. There are 13 presidential candidates in total, with Moussa and Aboul Fotouh leading the pack.
Despite Said’s enthusiasm for the debate, he said he didn’t think it would cause anyone to shift his or her allegiances.
“Mousa was avoiding the questions, but I still like him ore than Aboul Fotouh,” he said.