Egypt on Thurday evening witnessed an absolute novelty for the country: a debate between presidential candidates. This hasd never happend before as presidents in Egypt, from Naguib to Mubarak have never before seriously been challenged. Millions watched the debate, which lasted four and a half hours, and which featured the two leading candidates. Amr Moussa, Mubarak's foreign minister for 10 years until he became head of the Arab League, in 2001, and Abdel-Moneim Abou el Foutouh, a moderate Islamist who broke with the Muslim Brotherhood last year. The debate was hosted by Yosri Fouda and Mona al-Shazly, and was organized by Al-Masry Al-Youm, Al-Shorouk daily, Dream TV and OnTV.
The two candidates, each standing behind a podium, were also given time to throw questions at each other. Abou el Foutouh sought to picture Moussa as a key member and supporter of Mubarak's regime. Moussa, in turn, painted Abou al-Foutouh as beholden to the Muslim Brotherhood and hard-line Islamist (his candidature has been endorsed by the Salafist Al-Nour party).Some excerpts:
Abou el Foutouh (l) and Moussa behind their podiums in the studio. (EPA)
On Mubarak and being islamist:
Abouel Fotouh to Moussa: In 2010 Moussa endorsed Mubarak’s presidency.
Moussa to Abouel Fotouh: I endorsed Mubarak as opposed to his son Gamal in the succession context.
When the regime fell, it fell with its men and I wasn't one of them. I left 10 years ago and when it fell I wasn't part of it.
Abouel Fotouh: One of the strange things I heard today from Amr Moussa was that he was an opponent of the Mubarak regime. I must be a supporter of Mubarak then. Moussa to Abouel Fotouh: You supported the (Muslim)Brothers in the past. What will this mean now?
Abouel Fotouh to Moussa: I resigned from the Brotherhood and my presidency has nothing to do with their endorsement process.
Moussa to Abouel Fotouh: Abouel Fotouh is a Salafi with Salafis, and a liberal with liberals. Double standards.
Moussa: Sharia’s principles should be the foundation of legislation, while other religions should have their own rules, characterizing this as the desired relationship between religion and the state.
Abou el Foutouh: There is no duality between religion and citizenship, the state or the constitution. The nature of Islam is that it looks for the interest of people. When we look for their interests, this is congruous with Sharia law. Islam should be the main source of legislation under the supervision of the Supreme Constitutional Court.
Moussa: I am against religious parties. I am okay with guiding principles and ideologies. But religious parties are discriminatory in their essence.
Abouel Foutouh: If he is against religious parties, which represent a parliamentary majority, how will the president deal with them if elected?Moussa: Parliamentary majority is legitimate and I will deal with them, but my opinion in general is that religious parties harm the fabric of society.
Also Israel, the US and Iran were discussed. Ever the diplomat, Moussa said relations with Israel must be reconfigured until a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital was created. Aboul-Foutoh was more scathing, labelling Israel a threat to Egypt with its 200 nuclear warheads and continued broaching of Egyptian sovereignty on its borders. Both were rather more blasé about the US. Regarding Iran, Moussa urged that there should be no attack, while Aboul-Foutoh said Iran was welcome to have relations with Egypt as long as it did not attempt to spread Shia beliefs.
Wages and taxes:
Moussa cites a court ruling with regards to the minimum wage and says it has to be respected.
Abouel Fotouh argues that the minimum wage is connected to inflation and prices, but for now, Egypt has to respect the figure of LE1200 that came out of the court ruling. Raising wages is connected to reforming the tax structure.
Moussa: I am with progressive taxation. The taxation system has to be robust. Capital gains and real estate taxation are indispensable.
Abouel Fotouh: State income can rise from 15 to 25 percent through taxation. Subsidies should be lifted from energy-intensive industries.
The debate was aired concurrently on two satellite channels belonging to prominent Egyptian businessmen Naguib Sawiris and Ahmed Bahgat. It was not aired on national television and was full of ad breaks, giving it a Superbowl-type atmosphere and leading to criticism that it was a money-making endeavour as much as it was a historic occasion.
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.