Cairo: The two leading Egyptian presidential candidates squared off for hours in the nation`s maiden televised debate on contentious issues like Islamic Sharia law to their views on Israel, just two weeks ahead of a historic election to decide Hosni Mubarak`s successor.
Millions of Egyptians tuned into the debate between presidential frontrunners Amr Moussa, former minister of foreign affairs and ex-chief of the Arab League, and Abdel-Moneim Abul-Futoh, a Muslim Brotherhood defect.
The two men hope to be the next president of Egypt after a mass uprising in last February ousted Mubarak who had ruled the country for over 30 years.
The debate last night was a rare moment in the Arab region enthralled by uprisings but largely dominated by autocrats and political uncertainty. The debate was aired on two private Egyptian television channels, ONTV and Dream.
Moussa, 75, attacked Abul-Futoh, who has attended protests, for sympathising with demonstrators at the expense of national security.
Abul-Futoh, 60, countered by suggesting that Moussa, who served under Mubarak a decade ago, was complicit in the oppression that led to the uprising.
"You worked for the benefit of one group, the Muslim Brotherhood, not for Egypt as a nation," Mussa told Abul-Futoh, who quit the once-banned group a year ago.
Abul-Futoh highlighted Mussa`s connection to the Mubarak regime. "When you are part of a problem, you cannot provide the solution," Abul-Futoh said.
Debates are to be held between two candidate each Thursday up to the elections which are to be held on May 23 and 24 with runoffs if needed in June.
The two answered questions on the Constitution, taxes and balancing human rights with providing security during the first part of the debate, before turning their attentions to foreign affairs, priorities and their opinion of military leaders who have been Egypt`s ruling power since Mubarak`s ouster.
Abul-futoh and Moussa are among 13 candidates vying for the presidency.
The entire debate extended over six hours with the candidates appearing in about three of them. Each candidate was given two minutes to answer to the same question.
Though the debate started smoothly, trouble started when the candidates were requested to present reports on their financial and health statuses.
For Egyptians this is the first chance to get to see the presidential hopefuls interacting.
"I want to know the programmes. I have already changed my mind after seeing the presidential hopefuls. We wanted such things since the past thirty years or actually sixty years of military rule.”
"If there have been similar debates the country would have been different," he said.
Though millions were waiting for the debate in Egypt and around the world, some cafe owners in Egypt were reluctant to switch the TVs in the cafe to the stations showing the debate.
For analyst Ahmad al-Sharqawi the first debate was quite a good start.
"I think the debate was very successful and showed the ability of each presidential candidate to convey his ideas to the other," beams Al-Sharkawi.
"This is in the favour of the Egyptian voter to increase his awareness and enable him to make an important decision about who is to be Egypt`s next president," he added.