Egypte: Le débat présidentiel, Abdel-Moneim Aboul Fotouh versus Amr Moussa
Egypt: First Presidential Debate: Abdel-Moneim Aboul Fotouh vs. Amr Moussa
Yesterday, Egypt organized its first presidential debate, and according to El-Moheet newspaper and to many other observers, it was a stunning success. Egyptians, by the millions, watched this first presidential debate with great interest and anticipation. The debate commission as well as two television channels and two newspapers agreed to select the two top candidates who are leading in the polls. Officially, there are thirteen candidates in all, but the chose was narrowed down to two candidates, one of whom will most likely be the winner of the 23-24 May presidential elections
I have to say that the organization was good. The studio looked modern with a bit of dark lighting, which projected and added solemnness to the event and a serious dose of gravitas to the candidates and the moderator. For a country that went through a revolution and serious turmoil, the organization was top-notch and very professional. It is as if they have done this forever. It didn’t look or sound amateurish at all.
The two candidates leading the polls and who engaged in a serious debate last night are former Egyptian foreign minister and Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, and former Muslim Brotherhood leader Abdel-Moneim Aboul Fotouh Abdel Hady. It is interesting to note that both candidates are running as independents, though both candidates have clearly outlined constituencies and are backed by somehow distinct electoral coalitions. And yesterday’s debate was aimed at reinforcing these constituencies and mobilizing these two distinct electoral coalitions.
Throughout the debate, Amr Moussa and Abdel-Moneim Aboul Fotouh did not attack each other, and did not engage in rehashing the past very much. Both candidates had forward-looking strategies and narratives. They answered the questions directly and as Aboul Fotouh jokingly said, “bidouna laffy wa dawarane” –i.e., i answer your questions without any demagoguery or empty rhetoric. I have to say that in the first five minutes of debate, Aboul Fotouh looked nervous while Amr Moussa looked calm, and this is due to Amr Moussa’s vast experience with these kind of media exposure. Amr Moussa has a long experience answering questions in different international and national forums before different audiences and that gave him a small advantage. However, this advantage dissipated right the way and both candidates performed admirably.
The main contentious issue raised was the recent events and clashes in Cairo’s Abbassiya district. Both candidates argued that these violent events were due to the transitionary period that Egypt has been going through and to the lack of a clear and legitimate leader with a clear program at the top of the executive. However, Aboul Fotouh added that “If i were president, events like these would not have happened.” He went on to stress that although these events are regrettable, Egyptians and the military leadership need to remember that freedom of protest, peaceful assembly and demonstration are one of the gains of the January 25th revolution.
Overall, during this first debate, both candidates wanted to cement their constituencies and electoral coalitions and so they spoke directly to comfort the worries of the youth vote, including the left of center youth revolutionaries, of the secular middle class, of the Muslim Brotherhood moderate and divers coalition, of women, of the Coptic minority, and even the worries of the Salafists. In this exercise, Aboul Fotouh had the upper hand. He is (and was during the debate) well-aware that Amr Moussa represents a figure from the past that is still associated with the Mubarek regime. He is also aware that what the young revolutionary left wants more than anything else is a clear and definitive break from the practices of the past regime. This is why throughout the debate, Aboul Fotouh stressed his past as a major opposition figure to contrast it with the pro-Mubarek past of Amr Moussa. Using the 2008 U.S. election as an example of renewal and youth’s vigor, Aboul Fotouh promised to appoint a large number of young political leaders issued from the Egyptian civil society to high leadership positions in his future government should he be trusted with the presidency. He tried to reassure the secular middle class and the Coptic minority–both of which are more likely to favor Moussa–that he wouldn’t turn Egypt into a religious state or an Islamic republic. Finally, knowing that he has already a lock on the vote of the Salafists (the Salafists did not present a candidate and most leaders of the movement have already endorsed him), Aboul Fotouhe cleverly went after the MB moderate vote. His strategy is simple: minimize the damage and take as many votes away as possible from the formal Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Muhammad al-Mursi. Was he successful in doing that? I don’t know and we won’t know until elections day. However, he clearly reminded the MB voters that he is the legitimate figure of the opposition Muslim coalition and that splitting votes between the different Islamist candidates is sure way of losing the election. Basically, he used the card of the vote strategically or as the French call it “le vote utile.”
For Amr Moussa, this debate was a delicate exercise of balancing between the different electoral coalitions and their priorities. He wanted to reassure the Muslim voters without alienating the Coptic or the secular constituencies. He wanted to reassure the women vote without alienating the women who favor the MB policies (look at the breakdown of voting behavior in the last legislative elections). He wanted to promise robust economic programs and the revival of Egypt economy without looking reckless with tax-payers money and without sounding like he wanted to punish the wealthy class. As an experienced politician, he did a good job. He looked and sounded presidential, but he wasn’t successful in incarnating newness or embedding the “new” Egyptian political revival. This could just be a personal impression that is specific to me and doesn’t represent what the Egyptians felt after watching this debate.
In sum, for a first attempt, the organization a debate was spotless and very professional. In my opinion, this level of professionalism sets a standard for all newly democratized Arab countries to follow. I think that both candidate did a great job. However, i give a slight edge to Abdel-Moneim Aboul Fotouh just because he was a new figure representing a new democratic Egypt. He sounded new, he represented change and that is a serious advantage in a change election.