Egypt Presidential Candidates Appear in TV Debate

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGHB Boston.

[Egypt campaign song clip]

Werman: If you were anywhere near a radio in Egypt, you'd be hearing this campaign song for Amr Moussa. He's one of the leading candidates for Egypt's upcoming presidential election. Since the fall of Hosni Mubarak over a year ago, Egypt has been ruled by a military government. That will change following out the drawn out presidential election process that has 13 candidates now duking it out. Last night, the two most popular contenders faced off on Egyptian television. In one corner, Amr Moussa.

Amr Moussa: [Speaking in Egyptian Arabic] We are aiming to build a state where all citizens feel secure about their livelihood and their jobs. A state where every citizen in four corners of Egypt feel reassured that their country is inching towards democracy.

Werman: Moussa served as Hosni Mubarak's foreign minister for 10 years until he became the head of the Arab League in 2001. His opponent last night Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh is a moderate Islamist who broke with the Muslim Brotherhood last year.

Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh: [Speaking in Egyptian Arabic] I am dreaming of a democratic and independent state that gives prominence to Sharia. A state that creates job opportunities for its youth. A state where people can find decent jobs. A state where its citizens can live in dignity and be proud of their country.

Werman: Before our televised debate was built in Egypt as historic, Arab affairs analyst Magdi Abdelhadi was watching, and he joins us now from Cairo. Magdi, just how groundbreaking was this for Egypt?

Magdi Abdelhadi: It is a start, Egyptians have never seen anything like this before, you know, past elections were a foregone conclusion. The one we had one multi-candidate presidential election was Mubarak and against a few others, and no one doubt it back then the outcome. Today, nobody knows who's going to win that race, and in that respect, Egyptians have had their first ever taste of, shall we say, a greater degree of democracy, maybe even democracy than they've ever had in their history.

Werman: I got to say, listening to the exchanges just now between Moussa and Aboul Fotouh, I mean they were described in the press as passionate, but they didn't seem to really capture that, what we just heard. Did the two candidates ever catch fire during the debate?

Abdelhadi: Well, the first half really was pretty tedious, they were really differential and polite, and they both said things that few people could disagree with, like wanting to have a democratic state where the rule of law applies to everybody. That is very fine. The question is really, "How to get there?"  It is only in the second part when they started to attack each other's past record, when it got really, there were some sparks flying.

Werman: Magdi, aside from characterizations of each other's personality, was there one issue that the two candidates debated last night that seemed to underscore the past versus future concretely for Egypt?

Abdelhadi: They talk most of the time in generalities, fighting unemployment, attracting foreign investment. You know, its just a question of ââ?¬Å?How to get there?ââ?¬ , and the question of Israel, of course, one of the most contentious issues. They also disagree to a certain point, where the Islamist candidate regarded Israel as a strategic threat to country armed to the teeth, with 200 nuclear heads, he said, and Egypt should really prepare itself to defend itself. He didn't want to tear up the peace treaty or declare war, or anything like this. He said just Egypt has to have a strong army to stand up to Israel. Mr Amr Moussa thought that this was very dangerous, he thought that Israel was a rival, and a country that he has many disagreements with, that he's aware that most Egyptians regard Israel as an enemy. But he thinks as a politician and a potential head of state, that is a language he shouldn't be using because it is too dangerous. But most other issues really, I thought they broadly agreed. It was just the history and the past record of each one of them, whether they can deliver, whether people fear the Islamist candidate. Mr Amr Moussa tried to play, of course, on that fear, saying that, you know, "In me you have" , in Amr Moussa that is, they have a proven track record and he's a statesman. If people vote for him they know what they get, if they vote for an Islamist candidate they vote for the unknown and there are many potential dangerous things that could happen to Egypt if they were to have an Islamist president.

Werman: So Magdi, as a device to better inform Egyptian voters, what do you think this unprecedented debate gave people who watched it last night? Do you think that they are now better able to cast their vote?

Abdelhadi: There is, shall we say, a very small sector of Egyptian society who are politically enlightened and very interested in detail. The vast majority, my guess is, would choose on the basis of faith, on the basis of, sort of, they like this guy, they don't like this guy, they got gut feelings liking this guy. I don't think many people would be examining in detail their respective problems. But this was a historic night, this was democracy in action. I mean, Egyptians have never seen anything like that before.

Werman: Very interesting indeed. Magi Abdelhadi, an independent Arab affairs analyst, speaking with us from Cairo about last night's presidential debate there. Magdi, good to speak, thank you.

Abdelhadi: You're welcome.