CAIRO — Egypt held its first ever debate between presidential candidates on Thursday, as the two frontrunners for this month’s election traded political accusations on television.
Amr Mussa, a former foreign minister and Arab League chief, faced the moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh in the debate which was aired on two private Egyptian television channels, ONTV and Dream.
Overall, neither candidate landed a decisive blow against the other during the debate which covered the traditional topics of health, employment and education.
But in a reflection of the country’s new political dynamic since a popular uprising toppled veteran president Hosni Mubarak last year, it was Islamism, identity and affiliation to the former regime that dominated the debate.
The pair swapped some sharp exchanges with Mussa slamming his rival’s long time affiliation to the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, and Abul Fotouh accusing Mussa of belonging to an oppressive and corrupt regime under ousted president Hosni 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.
With less than two weeks to go before the landmark poll, Egyptians — many of whom are still undecided about their ballot according to various polls– were glued to their televison sets.
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 hotly disputed May 23-24 election will mark the end of a tumultuous military-led transitional period to civilian rule after a popular uprising ousted Mubarak in February 2011.
Opinion polls suggest Mussa and Abul Fotouh, a former senior member of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, are leading the race, with Mubarak’s former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq trailing them.
The Brotherhood, which dominates the parliament and senate, is represented by Mohammed Mursi, the head of its political arm, after its first choice, deputy Supreme Guide Khairat El-Shater, was disqualified over a previous military court conviction.
The military rulers who took charge after Mubarak’s ouster say they will hand power to the elected president by the end of June.