From the Editors
Millions of Egyptians were glued to their TV sets on Thursday evening, 10 May 2012, watching the first-ever televised debate between the two presidential candidates leading opinion polls in recent weeks. The live telecast—two weeks before the country’s first multi-candidate Presidential elections—was an opportunity for Egyptians to learn more about the two expected election front runners‘ visions for “the new Egypt” and hear their stances vis-a-vis issues like security and the relationship between religion and the state. More importantly, Egypt’s independent media broke significant new ground in Arab media election coverage by sponsoring the debut high level face-off between liberal diplomat Amr Moussa (a former foreign minister and Arab League Secretary General) and moderate Islamist Abdul Moneim Aboul Fotouh. The debate was shown simultaneously on privately owned channels ONTV and Dream, in collaboration with co-sponsors El Shorouk and AlMasry AlYoum, independent dailies.
The debate triggered a euphoria among the Egyptian public that previously only soccer matches could provoke and many Egyptians expressed their excitement via tweets and Facebook posts hours before the debate aired.
“My friends are coming over to watch the presidential debate at my house. We used to gather to watch Football games! How life has changed,” tweeted Daily News Egypt video journalist Farah Saafan.
“Settling in to watch Egypt’s first nationally televised presidential debate. Despite the past year’s depressing street violence and political battles, this moment is thrilling,” read McClatchy newspapers' Cairo bureau chief Hannah Allam’s Facebook post.
Indeed, it was an epic moment for the people of Egypt who for the second time since the onset of their uprising in January 2011 felt that their revolution was finally bearing fruit. The first time was when they had watched their detested long-time autocratic ruler Hosni Mubarak on a stretcher behind bars in a Cairo courtroom. Having lived for sixty years under repression, Egyptians had grown accustomed to the notion that their leaders were strictly “off limits” to the general public, and that they were beyond questioning. Viewers watched in amazement as the presidential hopefuls wiggled their way around a set of challenging questions posed by popular TV talk show hosts Mona El Shazly and Yosri Fouda. Before the start of the debate, it was tweeted that Aboul Fotouh had been delayed by heavy traffic—a far cry from Mubarak’s days, when roads were closed off to allow presidential and ministerial motorcades easy passage.
“How will the legal position of the Muslim Brotherhood be dealt with and how will religious minorities be treated?” quizzed veteran journalist, and popular ONTV talk show host, Yosri Fouda in the second part of the debate.
It may have been a tough question for someone like Aboul Fotouh, who has spent six years in prison as an opposition activist and is a former member of the Islamist group now dominating parliament. But contrary to expectations, he appeared calm and composed as he answered that “the group should have no privileges.”
“The question should be how civil society organizations will be dealt with. Everyone has to work within the law,” he added.
Meanwhile, Moussa treaded cautiously when asked if Israel was Egypt’s enemy and how he would respond to an attack on Iran. Any answer to the first part of the question was certain to provoke the ire of some group or another, but Moussa (being the seasoned career diplomat that he is) avoided calling Israel an enemy and simply said that he would reconsider relations with Israel. He added that the status of Jerusalem was the main bone of contention.
While handling most questions with apparent ease, there were some moments of discomfort for both protagonists especially when they were put on the spot with questions on the military. “Would you change the defense minister (who is currently Egypt’s de facto ruler), and what would you do about the military's enormous business investments?”
Abul-Fotouh almost scored points with the young revolutionaries when he responded by saying that in principle, he was not averse to appointing a civilian defense minister. However he lost the points when he quickly retracted his statement, asserting he wouldn't do so in view of the deteriorating situation. Moussa, on the other hand, defended the military's financial empire, arguing that “any military must achieve self-sufficiency, but it must be in coordination with the state.”
And the two rivals did not miss the chance to trade barbs on several occasions.
Taking a swipe at his opponent, Aboul Fotouh said: “members of the old regime should not be leading post-revolutionary Egypt.” Moussa fired back accusing his rival of contradicting himself on several occasions. He suggested that while Aboul Fotouh spoke “like a moderate, his writings suggest that he might act differently.”
Whether or not the marathon four hour debate will sway undecided voters' opinions one way or the other is arguable as the two candidates, for the most part, danced around the questions. Some viewers were disappointed and expressed their frustration in tweets such as this one by American University in Cairo (AUC) mass communication professor Rasha Abdulla, who wrote: ‘Moussa didn't really say why people should vote for him, just why they shouldn't vote for Aboul Fotouh." What the debate did do however, is transform views on Egypt’s independent media, which will long be remembered for its pioneering effort at greater transparency. It may also pave the way for other Arab media to adopt similar initiatives that hold Arab leaders to account for their words and actions. If this happens, then the Arab Spring will not have gone to waste.
[Full debate video from ONTV in Arabic]
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