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Egyptian presidential debate underscores Islamist vs. establishment divide (+video)

Egypt's first ever presidential debate pitted stability against revolutionary fervor. Elections are scheduled for later this month.

Egypt’s top two candidates – Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister for Mubarak turned Arab League chief, and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former Muslim Brotherhood leader – faced off last night in the first presidential debate in the nation’s history.
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Egypt’s top two presidential candidates faced off last night in the first presidential debate in the nation’s history, giving Egyptians a chance to watch a contest that would have been unthinkable under former president Hosni Mubarak

The candidates – Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister for Mubarak turned Arab League chief, and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former Muslim Brotherhood leader – each sought to use the other’s background as a point of attack, underscoring a main fault line in the race: Islamists versus figures from Mubarak’s regime.

Some Egyptians saw the debate as another step on Egypt’s path toward democracy after ousting Mubarak in a national uprising last year. “It was a beautiful thing,” Muharram Fouad, a Cairo taxi driver, says of the debate. “Mubarak never debated anyone. Now we have democracy, and freedom.”

During Mubarak’s nearly three-decade rule, referendums were held in which his was the only name on the ballot. In 2005, he allowed a multi-candidate election for the first time, but it was seen as fraudulent. Egyptians will vote for the first president to succeed him on May 23 and 24, with a runoff vote in June if no candidate wins an outright majority.

Last night Egyptians gathered around televisions at home and in cafes to watch the four-hour debate, which was presented with much fanfare by the two private satellite channels that hosted it. The abundance of lengthy advertising spots indicated that the channels expected a large audience. Dramatic music played as the debate began, and moderators emphasized the historic nature of the event. In the hour-long run-up, hosts explained that the format was based on US presidential debates, and broadcast part of the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debate. 

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