Moussa, Aboul Fotouh Spar in Egypt’s Epic First Presidential Debate

The top two presidential candidates met Thursday for a historic first debate. Ashraf Khalil reports.

Amr Nabil / AP Photos (2)

The anticipation was palpable Thursday evening in Egypt as residents rushed home or crowded around television sets in coffee shops to witness the latest act in the Great Egyptian Democratic Experiment.

Optimism has become something of a rare commodity here lately; the 15 months since entrenched dictator Hosni Mubarak was driven from power by a whirlwind popular uprising has been messy at best. Crime has risen, the economy is in tatters, Islamist forces now control the parliament, public protests frequently devolve into deadly street battles, and the country is still being run (badly) by the military—in the form of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

Among wide swaths of the Egyptian population, the public discussion has shifted from whether the revolution has failed to exactly who is to blame for the assumed failure. It’s hard to tell whether post-Mubarak Egypt is heading into a golden age or an emotional collapse.

But here was something that had never happened before—something that even the most hardened cynics couldn’t help but view with fascination. On Thursday night (and well into Friday morning) Egyptians witnessed their first ever presidential debate.

The event pitted the two top candidates, according to local polls, against each other. On one side there was Amr Moussa—the well-known former Mubarak-era foreign minister who has spent the decade prior to the revolution as head of the Arab League. Moussa’s adversary, Dr. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, has spent much of his adult life involved in the Muslim Brotherhood and served several stints in jail as a result. Aboul Fotouh, who had long been regarded as a moderate dissident within the Brotherhood ranks, finally broke with the organization after the revolution and is now packaging himself as a centrist.

Egyptians head to the polls on May 23 and 24, with runoff elections, if necessary, extending into mid-June. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has pledged to hand over the reigns of executive power to Egypt’s first democratically elected president by July 1.

But before Egyptian political history could be made Thursday night, there were commercials—lots and lots of commercials. There was also an extended pre-debate stage-setting package that sought, with occasionally hilarious results, to put the whole affair in its proper historical context.

Producers dug up archival footage of the first ever televised American presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John F Kennedy, from 1960. In a surreal comedic moment, viewers also were shown footage of a mock vice presidential debate sketch from Saturday Night Live with Tina Fey playing Sarah Palin—with no acknowledgement that what they were seeing was a satire.

Aboul Fotouh, in a thoroughly Egyptian touch, ended up caught in signature Cairo gridlock and arrived to the studio late; one of his campaign officials tweeted updates from the road.

The event kicked off well after 9 p.m. Cairo time, with the two competitors squaring off from a flashy neon-lit studio setting that seemed more appropriate for a game show. A pair of prominent Egyptian journalists asked questions ranging from how the candidates would fix the health-care system or raise the minimum wage to their views on Israel and the Camp David accords.

Moussa, a career diplomat and far more practiced public speaker, proved himself a master of verbal jujitsu. He frequently turned the questions he was asked into accusations against Aboul Fotouh without ever answering the question. Moussa came off as more animated and aggressive, emphasizing his experience in government and Egypt’s need for a president who won’t have to spend the crucial first year in on-the-job training.

“Egypt needs a man who understands the political context in the region and internationally,” he said. “The country is in a very dangerous position…It needs a man of experience.”

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Aboul Fotouh seemed more avuncular and professorial, highlighting his decades of opposition to the regime while Moussa was thriving inside the Mubarak government. At one point, he declared, “I want to hear one sentence that Amr Moussa said in opposition to Mubarak’s regime.”

The most revealing moments came during the frequent interludes when the candidates were permitted to ask questions of each other. It was here that each candidate sought to smear the other over their past associations. Aboul Fotouh painted Moussa as an unreformed Mubarak crony, while Moussa described Aboul Fotouh as an unreformed Muslim Brother who secretly sought to impose Sharia law on the country.

“I’d like to ask Mr. Amr Moussa, as a member of the past regime that people revolted against, can he become part of the solution? The figures of the past regime were silent on its crimes,” Aboul Fotouh said.

Moussa, who seemed to come close to genuinely losing his temper a few times, was far more willing to engage in negative campaigning. At one point, he referenced the public oath of loyalty Aboul Fotouh made to the Muslim Brotherhood’s supreme leader, implying that Aboul Fotouh as president would essentially be taking orders from the Brotherhood.

Aboul Fotouh has worked to pull together a diverse coalition of supporters. He has some support among liberals, who see him as a genuine agent of change. But he also recently picked up the endorsement of a major organization of Salafists—extreme Muslim fundamentalists who are far more conservative than the Brotherhood. Moussa openly painted Aboul Fotouh’s “big tent” coalition as proof that his opponent was an insincere political chameleon.

“With the Salafists he’s a Salafist, and with the liberals he’s a liberal, and with the moderates he’s a moderate,” Moussa said.

Near the end, Moussa dramatically read a passage from Aboul Fotouh’s memoirs. But first he paused to toss off a rather arrogant aside.

“I may be doing you a favor here. If you lose, then at least I’ll help you sell some more books,” he said.

The entire spectacle lasted more than four hours, ending after 1:30 a.m.—no doubt leaving many Egyptian viewers wondering if democracy was supposed to be this exhausting.