Cairo Egyptians crowded around television sets in outdoor cafes for the first of its kind televised presidential debate. Aired Thursday on several independent TV channels, the four-hour debate was a startling new experiment for Egypt after nearly 30 years of authoritarian rule under President Hosni Mubarak, ousted last year after a wave of protests .
Two front-runners, vying in Egypt’s landmark presidential elections later this month, taunted each other about their past in a historic television debate late Thursday.
Amr Mousa , a former foreign minister in the regime of the toppled president Hosni Mubarak, accused his Islamist rival Abdul Moneim Abu Al Fotouh of serving the interests of the Muslim Brotherhood  of which he was a member for years.
“Your opposition and defence were for the Brotherhood, not for Egypt,” Mousa told Abu Al Fotouh during the debate.
The debate gave Egyptians a taste of the tactics common to presidential face-offs in the United States and Europe, as each tried to enshrine his image. Mousa who stepped down from the Arab League post after Mubarak’s fall , presented himself as the voice of experience that can bring security to a country rocked by turmoil since Mubarak’s fall.
Abu Al Fotouh depicted himself as the candidate of the revolution — kicking off the debate with praise for the “martyrs” killed by security forces and troops in protests against Mubarak and against the military that took his place in power.
Abu Al Fotouh, a physician, was a senior official in the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, which expelled him last year after he announced his intention to stand for Egypt’s president in defiance of a ban imposed by the group.
In his campaign over the past months, Abu Al Fotouh has gathered an unusual coalition, with support from some secular liberals, youth who have broken away from the Muslim Brotherhood and some Salafists.
The debate, broadcast live on the two private television stations Dream and On TV, came less than two weeks before Egypt holds its first presidential polls since Mubarak’s was ousted.
Mousa, 75, seems favoured by secular-minded voters, while Abu Al Fotouh, 60, projects an image of a liberal Islamist.
During the debate, both contenders were asked about their own views on a wide range of issues including freedom of faith, foreign policy and the army’s status after a power transfer from the military to an elected civilian authority due to take place by the end of June.
Mousa, who rode a wave of popularity among the Egyptians in the 1990s for his anti-Israel rhetoric, called Israel a “country practising a hostile policy.” “But the president’s responsibility is to handle matters wisely and head off a showdown [with Israel],” he added.
For Abu Al Fotouh, Israel is a “strategic enemy”. Egypt was the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. But public anti-Israel feelings run high in Egypt.
In addition to Mousa and Abu Al Fotouh, 11 others are competing in the presidential elections to be held on May 23-24, with a likely runoff vote scheduled for June 16.
At least one more debate is expected, though it has not been announced which candidates will participate. Along with Mousa and Abu Al Fotouh, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood Mohammad Mursi and Mubarak’s last prime minister Ahmad Shafiq are also seen as strong front-runners.
If no candidate emerges with a majority in the May 23-24 first round of voting , a run-off between the top two vote-getters will be held June 16-17.
At one Cairo coffee shop near Tahrir Square, supporters of either candidates broke out in claps and cheers when either candidate hit on the other’s perceived weakness- scenes of public support mostly seen in Egypt only around football games.
“This is the first time in the Egyptian and Arab history. We really are changing,” said Ahmad Talaat, a 36-year old accountant. “The uprising is really bearing fruit.”