Two of the top candidates running to become Egypt's first post-revolution president have squared off in the Arab world's first televised presidential debate, one whose focus became a sometimes angry debate over their controversial pasts.
Egyptians crowded around television sets in outdoor cafes for the four-hour debate on Thursday night, aired in two segments over several independent TV channels - a new experiment for Egypt after nearly 30 years of authoritarian rule under President Hosni Mubarak.
Former Mubarak-era foreign minister and Arab League chairman Amr Moussa pressed Islamist doctor and former high-ranking Muslim Brotherhood member Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh over the latter's connections to conservative religious groups, suggesting in the end that if he became president it risked a return to insecurity and terrorism.
Aboul Fotouh, who despite occasional shouting matches never seemed to lose his calm, countered that Moussa, as a former member of Mubarak's regime, was incapable of carrying out the goals of the revolution that ousted his boss.
The two are among 13 candidates competing in the election, due to be held on May 23 and 24. Along with the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate, Mohammed Morsi, they are considered front-runners.
Moussa, who has been campaigning throughout Egypt since Mubarak's fall more than a year ago, is considered to be favoured by secularists, liberals and the so-called "silent majority" that may have eventually come to support the revolution but fears more unrest.
Aboul Fotouh, who left the Brotherhood in 2011 over ideological differences and in order to run for president, has pulled together an unlikely coalition of liberals, socialists, moderate and hardline Islamists and is seen as perhaps the best chance for the politically unaffiliated youth of the revolution to win some kind of voice in the executive branch.
For most of Mubarak's rule, he was re-elected in referendums in which he was the only candidate. The last presidential election, in 2005, was the first to allow multiple candidates, but Mubarak won with more than 90 per cent of the vote.
The debate repeatedly turned combative, as the two candidates, each standing behind a podium, were also given time to throw questions at each other.
"My point of reference is the nation, your point of reference is the Brotherhood,'' said Moussa, who has sought to appeal to Egyptians worried about the rising power of Islamists.
Religious parties, most prominently the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, won more than two-thirds of Egypt's parliament during months of voting that ended in January.
Moussa pushed Aboul Fotouh to explain his past affiliation with a branch of the Islamic Group - though it was a different branch that eventually turned to violence - and his stance on implementing Islamic law, suggesting that he had "made commitments'' to hard-line Islamists, such as the Salafis.
But Aboul Fotouh fired back, denying any connection to violent extremists and attacking Moussa's own affiliations.
"I want to hear one word of opposition you said under Mubarak's regime,'' he said, pointing out that Moussa said in 2010 that he would back Mubarak for another term as president.
At one Cairo coffeeshop near Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the protests that brought down Mubarak, supporters of either candidates broke out in claps and cheers when either candidate hit on the other's perceived weakness - scenes of public support mostly seen in Egypt only around football games.
"This is the first time in the Egyptian and Arab history. We really are changing,'' said Ahmed Talaat, a 36-year old accountant. "The uprising is really bearing fruit.''
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|Timothy V. Gatto|