Egyptians Captivated By Televised Presidential Debate

In Egypt's first presidential debate, only the top two candidates participated. Voters go to the polls later this month to choose among a field of 13 candidates. The winner is expected to be decided in a runoff next month.

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The famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 each lasted three hours. That's a good deal longer than modern day political debates in America, but they were short compared with the debate yesterday in Egypt. We're told this was the first televised presidential debate in the history of the Arab world. And two leading contenders among the many running in Egypt talked for four-and-a-half hours. That left them plenty of time to argue over the role of Islam in society and Egypt's relationship with Israel. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in Cairo.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Waiters and patrons thronged the plasma screen TVs at Goal cafe in the trendy Zamalek neighborhood, as the debate began a half hour late. Some, like 18-year-old high school student Ahmed Hamouda, were suspicious about this latest democratic milestone in their country.

AHMED HAMOUDA: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: He complains that the candidates can say anything they like, but adds that it's more important for Egypt's next president to be judged by what he does. Nevertheless, they were glued to the screens as former Brotherhood leader Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh and former Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa sparred with each other.

Political science Professor Hassan Nafaa is a columnist for the Egyptian daily al Masry Yom. He says the interest is understandable, given Egyptians for the first time have a say in who their next leader will be.

HASSAN NAFAA: Egypt has never been so politically motivated. So instead of watching TV series, they are watching political debate every night.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NELSON: The two private Egyptian stations hosting the debate made sure the broadcast included plenty of dramatic flair.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NELSON: Moderators and analysts spent hours beforehand explaining the Western-style format to viewers.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE 1960 U.S. PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

SENATOR JOHN F. KENNEDY: Mr. Nixon comes out of the Republican Party.

NELSON: They showed excerpts of the 1960 debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE 1960 U.S. PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Mr. Nixon, would you like to comment on that statement?

VICE PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: I have no comment.

NELSON: Afterward, analysts discussed the two American men's styles.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Would you like to respond to Senator Biden's comments about John McCain?

TINA FEY: (as Sarah Palin) No, thank you.

NELSON: The experts also discussed the 2008 debate between vice presidential candidates Sarah Palin and Joe Biden, while featuring a "Saturday Night Live" parody of the debate with Tina Fey playing the role of Palin.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

FEY: (As Sarah Palin) ...hockey moms and Joe Sixpacks, and...

NELSON: The Egyptian candidates were asked 24 questions by two moderators. They were also allowed to pose questions to each other. But the men were restricted to a two-minute time limit per answer, a rarity in this Egyptian campaign season where politicians often drone on. While the candidates were civil in tone, their words for each other were often harsh.

(SOUNDBITE OF EGYPTIAN PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Each criticized the other's reaction to the recent clashes between soldiers and protestors in front of the Defense Ministry. Moussa repeatedly dismissed Aboul Fotouh as a radical Islamist. The former Brotherhood leader, in turn, denounced Moussa as an unwelcome remnant of the Mubarak era.

Back at the Goal cafe, architect Amr Sobhy wasn't impressed.

AMR SOBHY: Right now, they both are losing for me. The debate is not very good, but I'm pro-Aboul Fotouh. So right now, I'm rooting for him. But I'm not finding what I'm looking for.

NELSON: But Sobhy says he's glad Egyptians were getting a chance to see a presidential debate. He adds it's a good way for voters to test the candidates' mettle.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Cairo.

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