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For first time ever, Egyptians sees competing candidates debate

Two weeks before Egypt’s first democratic presidential election, the two leading candidates on Thursday gave a riveted nation its first televised political debate, each seeking to portray himself as the champion of the revolution that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak 15 months ago.

Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, 60, a former member of the once-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, and Amr Moussa, 75, the former secretary-general of the Arab League, dealt with many of the major issues that will face Egypt’s new leader: the role of religion and state; funding for the ruling military; and how to improve Egypt’s faltering economy. Throughout, each candidate asserted that he was the only proper custodian of the revolution.

“Bread, dignity and justice. Those are the three basic demands of the revolution,” Aboul Fotouh said in his opening statements.

Moussa ran away from his service under the Mubarak regime, and Aboul Fotouh rejected suggestions he was a puppet of conservative Islamists.

Much like their American counterparts, the candidates dodged specifics in their answers, promising instead to bring about the kind of change protesters sought when they filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square for days and forced Mubarak to resign. With a two-minute time limit for answers strictly enforced, the debate remained largely tame.

Instead, the fiercest disputes occurred among viewers, many of whom gathered at outdoor television sets that usually air soccer matches. Drinking cups of tea and sucking on the hoses of traditional water pipes, voters argued with one another about who deserved their votes.

“Let me ask you something: How can you can you say you support the revolution and then vote for a former member of (the regime)?” Amr Mustafa, 30, a mechanical engineer, shouted at his friend when he proclaimed his support for a candidate not in the debate, Mubarak’s former prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq.

“There is no need for the violence and killing happening now by the revolutionaries. Shafiq will do good things for the country,” responded Ahmed Abdel Rahman, 28, a bank teller.

There are 13 candidates on the ballot that Egyptian voters will consider when they go to the polls May 23-24 for the first round of the presidential election. The top two vote-getters will then go on to a runoff in June, and most people think the two men who took part in Thursday’s debate are the most likely one-two finishers. Still, that left 11 candidates off the dais, though even a two-man race was a marked difference from Egypt’s previous elections, which for three decades were mere formalities to confirm Mubarak in office. Never before had Egyptians seen competing candidates assail one another’s positions.

The debate was organized by two local television stations, ONTV and Dream TV, and two newspapers, Al Shorouk and Al Masry Al Youm. The organizers said they invited only Moussa and Aboul Fotouh to compete because they wanted to limit the debate to the top contenders.

Before the debate, newscasters walked the audience through how a debate works. The lesson included footage of the 1960 debate between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Viewers also saw a “Saturday Night Live” parody of former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s debate performance to explain the influence such debates can have on public discourse. Egyptians watched intently, seemingly shocked at first at the prospect of hearing from the candidates.

But as the debate continued over several hours – it was not scheduled to end until 1:30 a.m. Friday local time – their fascination turned into wariness. Both men vowed to restore security, to have more say over the military budget, to respect the right of all faiths and to honor the nation’s new constitution, even though it has yet to be written.

There have been no official polls conducted, though an unofficial poll published this week put Moussa in the lead. But if the debate were the deciding factor, the lead changed hands several times as the hours wore on.

The role of religion appeared to be among the most divisive issues. Aboul Fotouh has picked up endorsements from every major religious party, and Moussa sought to expose inconsistencies in his stance over the role of religion in the new post-Mubarak state.

"There’s no contradiction between religion and citizenship, or religion and the constitution, or religion and the state," Aboul Fotouh said in response, seeking to appeal to both Islamists and to appease the concerns of secular voters.

Moussa rejected suggestions that his campaign was funded by outside support, saying he had spent $500,000 so far on the campaign, largely out of his own pocket.

At times, moderator Mona al Shazly allowed the candidates to ask each other questions, which often led to charges that a candidate had contradicted himself in statements. Although the debate was a first, both candidates have given numerous television interviews.