The two front-runners in Egypt’s presidential election have traded barbs in an unprecedented televised debate, framing this month’s vote as a choice between an Islamist fundamentalist or a holdover from Hosni Mubarak’s toppled regime.
Amr Mussa, a former foreign minister and Arab League chief, squared off with Islamist candidate Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh for nearly four hours late into the night on Thursday.
Egypt’s first ever televised presidential debate, aired on two private Egyptian television channels, ONTV and Dream, came as polls suggest that Mussa and Abdul Fotouh are the leading contenders in the May 23-24 polls.
Eleven other candidates are competing in the presidential election which should mark the end of a tumultuous military-led transitional period since Mubarak’s overthrow in February 2011.
A poll concluded at the end of April by the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies shows Mussa ahead with 39 percent while Abul Fotouh trails with 24 percent. Other polls show them neck and neck.
The candidates answered questions from two popular television anchors on issues ranging from the traditional topics of health, employment and education.
But the debate took an increasingly bitter turn as they attacked each other’s pasts, with Islamism, identity and affiliation to the former regime dominating the head-to-head.
The pair swapped sharp exchanges, as Mussa criticised his rival’s past with the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, and Abul Fotouh accused Mussa of belonging to an oppressive and corrupt regime under Mubarak.
“You worked for the benefit of one group, the Muslim Brotherhood, not for Egypt as a nation,” Mussa told Abul Fotouh, who quit the once-banned group a year ago.
Abul Fotouh for his part repeatedly highlighted Mussa’s connection to the Mubarak regime.
“When you are part of a problem, you cannot provide the solution,” Abul Fotouh said, stressing that a “symbol” of the toppled regime has no right to lead Egypt again.
Mussa accused Abul Fotouh of wanting to apply Islamic law in Egypt, where the once-banned Brotherhood now dominates both houses of parliament.
The former diplomat also read passages from a book authored by Abul Fotouh which appeared to justify the use of violence under certain circumstances.
“Where is the candidate?,” Mussa asked of Abul Fotouh. “Will he revert to what he said in the book? We can’t be sure.”
Mussa also accused Abul Fotouh of past membership in an Islamist militant group that carried out attacks against civilians and policemen, which Abul Fotouh staunchly denied.
Abul Fotouh, a physician and activist during his days as a medical student, spent several years in jail under Mubarak’s rule and hit back saying the former regime was responsible for real violence in the country.
Neither candidate appeared to deliver a decisive blow, but they both played to different demographics in the polarised country which saw a steep deterioration in the economy and rising lawlessness after the uprising that toppled Mubarak.
Around the capital, groups gathered in cafes to watch the debate and experience what many described as the fruit of the revolution.
“This is a new experience for us. Watching two people trying to convince us to vote for them, no one would have ever imagined this just two years ago,” said Saber Mohammed, who watched the debate at a traditional cafe in Cairo’s Dokki neighbourhood.
The 60-year-old Abul Fotouh has the support of a range of parties and public figures, from the hardline Salafi Islamist Nour Party to the secular former Google executive and protest icon Wael Ghonim.
Mussa, whose association with Mubarak’s regime is a stigma for some but an attraction for others who want an experienced president, accused Abul Fotouh of flip-flopping between his hardline Islamist and liberal supporters.
Mussa, 75, also hopes to attract the vote of the country’s large Christian Coptic minority, which has suffered an increase in sectarian attacks since Mubarak’s ouster.
The two also debated foreign policy, and both agreed the country’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel had to be revised though not annulled.
Abul Fotouh, who used to organise aid convoys to the Palestinian Gaza Strip, said he considered Israel “an enemy” while Mussa said Egypt has “disputes” with the Jewish state over its treatment of Palestinians.