Egyptians watched their first national presidential debate with great interest on Thursday evening. The event, sponsored by two television channels and two newspapers, was preceded by an overview of the concept of presidential debates as practiced in America that even showed a clip from Saturday Night Live.
As in the US, the debates are a way for the candidates to position themselves with regard to the various constituencies in the electorate. In Egypt, these are the constituencies over which former Egyptian foreign minister and Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa and former Muslim Brotherhood leader Abd al-Moneim Abu’l-Futuh were fighting:
1. The youth vote, including the left of center youth revolutionaries
2. The secular middle classes
4. The Muslim Brotherhood voters (the mainstream religious Right)
5. The Coptic Christians (10% of the population)
6. The Salafis or hard line Muslim fundamentalists
So Abu’l-Futuh knows that the New Left youth do not forgive Moussa for having served under Mubarak and at one point, and he stressed Moussa’s background in this regard. He also promised to appoint very large numbers of young people to high positions, noting that in 2008 the US got a young president but that Egypt is ruled by the geriatric set. Abu’l-Futuh tried to reassure the secular middle classes and the Copts, both of which probably favor Moussa, that he wouldn’t turn Egypt into a religious state like Saudi Arabia. He knows that the Salafi leaders have already endorsed him. But the Muslim Brotherhood has its own candidate, Muhammad al-Mursi, who will likely draw votes away from Abu’l-Futuh.
Moussa stressed both respect for Islam and the important role Islamic law plays in underpinning most Egyptian laws. This was his attempt to steal some votes of the committed Muslims from Abu’l-Futuh. But he also stressed that these Islamic laws could not be applied to Coptic Christians, who have their own personal status laws. He reminded the audience that Abu’l-Futuh had long been a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, which back in the 1940s and 1950s resorted to violence. Abu’l-Futuh broke with the Brotherhood years ago and has a more moderate interpretation of Islam than they do. But Moussa tried to hang the Brotherhood around his neck, so as to scare away from him the secular middle classes, students, women and Coptic Christians.