Egypt’s presidential election began for citizens abroad this weekend after a
vitriolic television debate between the two leading candidates produced no clear
favorite to lead the Arab world’s most populous nation.
uncertainty, Egypt’s one million expatriates registered to vote – mostly in
Europe, North America and the Persian Gulf states – may help swing the election.
On Friday and Saturday hundreds of Egyptians queued in front of their embassy in
the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh to cast their votes, as did compatriots in
places as far-flung as Rome and Paris. Regular voting is May 23 and 24 in the
first round of the election that is expected to go to a June run-off between the
top two candidates.
In Thursday’s debate both of those candidates called
for a revision of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, with Islamist hopeful Abdel
Moneim Abol Fotouh describing Israel as his country’s “enemy” and nationalist
contender Amr Moussa acknowledging that most of his countrymen view the Jewish
state as an adversary.
“Israel is an enemy which is built on occupation,
owns 200 nuclear warheads, doesn’t respect international decisions and attacks
religious symbols,” said Abol Fotouh.
“The majority of Egyptians are
enemies of Israel. The agreement with Israel should be revised and the
sections which are against our interests should be removed immediately and only
what’s in our interests should stay.”
Moussa – a vociferous critic of
Israel as foreign minister and Arab League chief – conceded that most Egyptians
view the Jewish state as an enemy, but phrased his response
“We have lots of disagreements. Most of our people consider it
an enemy, but the responsibility of the president is to deal with such things
responsibly and not run after hot-headed slogans,” he said.
A Pew poll
released last week found 61 percent of Egyptians wanted to cancel the 1979 peace
agreement with Israel, up from 54% a year ago.
A former top official of
the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood, Abol Fotouh portrayed Moussa as a member of
the unpopular regime of deposed president Hosni Mubarak.
“There is a rule
that says the that one who created the problem cannot solve it,” said the
60-year old Abol Fotouh.
Moussa, who was head of the Arab League at the
time of the uprising, defended his record as Egypt’s foreign minister but added
that he had left the post in 2001.
“The regime that fell, fell with
Moussa outside of it,” he said of himself. “I say, you too were
silent. You used to defend the positions of the Muslim Brotherhood and
not Egyptian interests.”
Abol Fotouh has sought to build a broad
constituency encompassing mainstream and hard-line Islamists as well as
non-Islamists. Moussa appeals to voters who believe Egypt needs someone with
experience at the helm and who worry about the consolidation of Islamist
Thursday’s late-night presidential debate was the first in
Egypt’s history and widely viewed across the Arab world. During a 90-minute
build-up to the show, the broadcasters set the historical scene by screening
archive footage of the 1960 US presidential debate between John
Kennedy and Richard Nixon – the first-ever televised presidential
Moussa said he was the statesman Egypt needed to lead it through
“a crisis of existence.”
Abol Fotouh said he was the man to unite the
country and end “a state of polarization” between Islamists and non-Islamists
including leftists and relative liberals.
Each pushed the other to
clarify their views on Islamic law. Abol Fotouh asked questions of Moussa that
suggested the latter was less respectful of Shari’a, or Islamic law. Moussa
intimated that Abol Fotouh was saying different things to different people on
the subject that he was more radical than he was letting on.
his rival about an oath he had pledged to the religious guide of the
“What does this oath mean? Does it mean that if you are
elected you will have [another] president?” he said.
Abol Fotouh replied:
“It seems Amr Moussa doesn’t follow the news carefully and doesn’t know that I
resigned from the Muslim Brotherhood after I decided to run for the presidency
in April 2011. This resignation was because I wanted to be free to serve the
nation – to be a president for all Egyptians.”
Moussa accused him of
double-speak, asking how he had managed to win endorsement from both
non-Islamists and hard-line Salafi Islamists.
“With Salafis, he is a
Salafi. With liberals, he is a liberal. With centrists, he is a centrist,” he
The tension which appeared to build through the debate manifested
itself in scathing closing remarks.
Moussa urged Egyptians not to vote
for a man he said was unclear in his policies and was not qualified to lead a
state, accusing him of “forging history.”
Abol Fotouh shot back by saying
that a vote for Moussa would be a step backwards.
“We are for the first
time choosing the president of Egypt,” he said. “I hope that we don’t allow
ourselves to be taken back, once again, to the fallen regime, with its ideas,
its substance and figures.”