CAIRO — Two election front-runners, a former foreign minister and a moderate Islamist, squared off Thursday in the Arab world's first ever presidential debate, trading barbs over the role of religion and how to bring democratic reform to Egypt.
Egyptians crowded around television sets in outdoor cafes for the four-hour debate, aired on several independent TV channels – a startling new experiment for Egypt after nearly 30 years of authoritarian rule under President Hosni Mubarak, ousted last year after a wave of 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 a direct debate was out of the question.
The debate, which ran well past midnight, pitted Amr Moussa, who served as Mubarak's foreign minister for 10 years until becoming head of the Arab League in 2001, against Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh, a moderate Islamist who broke with the Muslim Brotherhood last year. The two are among 13 candidates competing in the election, due to begin on May 23.
The debate repeatedly turned combative, as the two candidates, each standing behind a podium, were also given time to throw questions at each other.
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 hard-line 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 coffeeshop 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_ 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."
The two touched on their economic platforms, the role of the military – which 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 face-offs in the United States and Europe, as each tried to enshrine his image. Moussa presented himself as the voice of experience who can 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.
In his campaign over past months, Abolfotoh has gathered an unusual coalition, with support from some secular liberals, youth who have broken away from the Muslim Brotherhood and some followers of the hard-line Islamist movement known as Salafis.
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. Along with Moussa and Abolfotoh, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood Mohammad Mursi and Mubarak's last prime minister Ahmed Shafiq are also seen as strong frontrunners.
If no candidate emerges with a majority in the May 23-24 first round of voting, a run-off between the top two vote-getters will be held June 16-17.