Millions of Egyptians were glued to their sofas until early Friday morning, watching the first televised presidential debate between frontrunners Amr Moussa and Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh. Prior to the debate journalist Hafez El-Merazi, ONTV anchor Reem Maged, Dream TV anchor Amr Khafaga and MP and columnist Amr Shobaki hosted a show outlining the rules of the debate. They also compared different US and French presidential debates.
The debate was divided into two parts, each consisting of 12 questions. The first half was hosted by TV presenter Mona El-Shazli. The first part discussed the constitution, executive authorities, the economy, preferred systems of taxation and campaign financing. But ultimately, the over four-hour long debate returned time and again to two hotly debated topics: religion and the former regime.
Abul-Fotouh, a former leading figure in the Muslim Brotherhood, attempted to capitalise on Moussa's past position as foreign minister in Mubarak's government in the late 90s. Moussa fired back, portraying Abul-Fotouh as beholden to the Brotherhood and other Islamist forces.
Each candidate was posed 24 questions with two minutes to respond. At the end of each question, the two candidates were given a few minutes for their rebuttals, sparking a war of words.
Felul or Brotherhood
Moussa asked the first question: "You visited the Abbasiya sit-in and led one of the protests; then, one day later, you described the same protests as inappropriate. They really are inappropriate and chaotic, but why the contradictory stance?"
Abul-Fotouh stated that there was no contradiction, explaining that he took part in a peaceful march in solidarity with ten Egyptians who lost their lives because the ruling military council failed to protect them.
He then shot back, asking Moussa the expected question: "I'd like to ask Mr Amr Moussa, as a member of the past regime...that people revolted against, if can he become part of the solution?”
Distancing himself from Mubarak, Moussa firmly stated that the regime fell with its men on 11 February, and he was not one of them. He then turned the table on Abul-Fotouh, accusing him of still being a member of the Brotherhood, and charging that his opposition to the former regime is founded on narrow Brotherhood interests – not Egypt's.
When it came to questions regarding healthcare, pensions, economic policies, a new constitution, the Islamist candidate offered more specific responses than the ex-diplomat, sticking to his programme and often referring to facts and figures. Moussa spoke broadly, at times answering questions with questions. This, however, was not allowed, as well-known television anchor and moderator Yusri Fouda made clear.
Islamist or Secularist
In one of his questions, Moussa asked Abul-Fotouh: "You once said in a televised interview that Muslims can convert to Christianity and vice versa... is this still your position?"
Abul-Fotouh, taken aback, waffled at first and then stressed the importance of freedom of belief and of a moderate understanding of Islam. He, however, fought back and attempted to corner Moussa and paint him as too secular.
Moussa was twice asked: "What do you mean by the general principles of Sharia?" After equivocating, the one-time Arab League chief insisted that the general principles of Islamic Sharia law, as they existed in the 1971 constitution, should be applied.
"We want to know your vision about applying Sharia law, especially as you are now backed by radical Islamist groups; and in politics nothing is for free, there must be a deal and we need to know," Moussa shot back.
Iran an Arab country
The highlight of the show was when Moussa described Iran as an Arab country. Here is a transcript of both candidates' answers on how they would deal with Israel and Iran.
Abul-Fotouh: Israel is an enemy which is built on occupation, owns 200 nuclear warheads, doesn't respect international decisions and attacks religious symbols. The majority of Egyptians are enemies of Israel. The agreement with Israel should be revised and the sections which are against our interests should be removed immediately and only what's in our interests should stay.
Our relationship with Iran is based on our own independence. I am not against a relationship with Iran provided it don't proselytise the Shia faith in Egypt and likewise we shouldn't try to spread the Sunni faith there.
Moussa: I am against a war with Iran. Iran is an Arab country! And we have to listen and talk...
Moussa's expressions were vivid and theatrical; he waved a lot with his hands, sometimes warning, other times threatening. He was also on the defensive, while Abul-Fotouh kept his voice low and deep and used a lot of revolutionary slogans. He alluded frequently to his struggle during the Mubarak era and his long years in jail, trying to gain the audience's sympathy.
It is noted that even though the questions were all about the future and what candidates would do when in power, most answers returned to the past and accused the other candidate of being a member of the Brotherhood or the previous regime.
During the rebuttals, Moussa kept reading extracts of Abul-Fotouh’s book in which he referred to the use of violence. Here is part of the debate which almost ended in an argument:
Moussa: I will read a part of your book. I am providing you a service here. 'We believe in the use of violence and its necessity....'
Abul-Fotouh: This is not true, this isn't my book and this was a quote of some youths who supported violence but I stood against violence and we worked on entering institutions such as the student unions.
The history of the Islamic movement has been peaceful except for a small group that was violent and has now repented and established a party called the Building and Development Party and want to share in helping the nation peacefully. I was a politician and never a bureaucrat in Mubarak's regime.
Moussa: He said I was a bureaucrat and he was a politician – I was foreign minister, a top political job.
At the end of the debate each candidate was given two minutes to wrap up:
Moussa: We saw today a strange contradiction between what has been said, which was very nice, and what was in the book, which was very different – where is the candidate? Will he return to his position in the book? What is going on is something that is going to affect Egypt's position and future ... The conflicts between [Abul-Fotouh's] ideas is disappointing and we have to warn Egyptians.
Abul-Fotouh: I will speak to all Egyptians. We cannot allow anyone to send us back to the corrupt former regime. We need people who lived this revolution, who can carry this nation and build it by dropping the debts of farmers, combating unemployment, and be the face of the new republic. .. This is what the ballot box is going to say. Someone who will protect the traditions and values and independence of Egypt, and will develop the healthcare and education systems. Egypt is a strong country and we have to stand together in unity against those who want to divide us into Islamists and liberals.
After Thursday night's heavily publicised event came to a close, the debate continued on Twitter, the micro-blogging website. The televised face off, the first of its kind in the Arab world, drew crowds to streets cafes across the capital, giving the event the air of a football match between Cairo rivals Zamalek and Ahly – cheering, booing and all.
Critics, however, questioned the decision to broadcast the presidential debate, laden with plenty of advert breaks, on satellite stations only. Others questioned whether the remaining eleven candidates would be given similar space and exposure.
The excitement in the Egyptian press and in the blogosphere was tangible, however. Televised presidential debates dating back to the first one between US candidates John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon were discussed in anticipation of the evening. At times, Thursday's face-off resembled American and European debates, as each candidate attempted to posture himself as either the voice of the revolution, Abul-Fotouh, or of experience and diplomacy, Moussa, often equivocating on more policy-related issues.
Egypt's presidential elections will take place on 23 and 24 May. The president will be named on 21 June after a runoff voting round, if necessary, on 16 and 17 June.