One million expatriates register to vote, may help swing the election; first round expected to go to June run-off between top 2 candidates.
Egypt’s presidential election began for citizens abroad this weekend after a vitriolic television debate between the two leading candidates produced no clear favorite to lead the Arab world’s most populous nation.
Amid the uncertainty, Egypt’s one million expatriates registered to vote – mostly in Europe, North America and the Persian Gulf states – may help swing the election. On Friday and Saturday hundreds of Egyptians queued in front of their embassy in the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh to cast their votes, as did compatriots in places as far-flung as Rome and Paris. Regular voting is May 23 and 24 in the first round of the election that is expected to go to a June run-off between the top two candidates.
In Thursday’s debate both of those candidates called for a revision of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, with Islamist hopeful Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh describing Israel as his country’s “enemy” and nationalist contender Amr Moussa acknowledging that most of his countrymen view the Jewish state as an adversary.
“Israel is an enemy which is built on occupation, owns 200 nuclear warheads, doesn’t respect international decisions and attacks religious symbols,” said Abol Fotouh.
“The majority of Egyptians are enemies of Israel. The agreement with Israel should be revised and the sections which are against our interests should be removed immediately and only what’s in our interests should stay.”
Moussa – a vociferous critic of Israel as foreign minister and Arab League chief – conceded that most Egyptians view the Jewish state as an enemy, but phrased his response carefully.
“We have lots of disagreements. Most of our people consider it an enemy, but the responsibility of the president is to deal with such things responsibly and not run after hot-headed slogans,” he said.
A Pew poll released last week found 61 percent of Egyptians wanted to cancel the 1979 peace agreement with Israel, up from 54% a year ago.
A former top official of the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood, Abol Fotouh portrayed Moussa as a member of the unpopular regime of deposed president Hosni Mubarak.
“There is a rule that says the that one who created the problem cannot solve it,” said the 60-year old Abol Fotouh.
Moussa, who was head of the Arab League at the time of the uprising, defended his record as Egypt’s foreign minister but added that he had left the post in 2001.
“The regime that fell, fell with Moussa outside of it,” he said of himself. “I say, you too were silent. You used to defend the positions of the Muslim Brotherhood and not Egyptian interests.”
Abol Fotouh has sought to build a broad constituency encompassing mainstream and hard-line Islamists as well as non-Islamists. Moussa appeals to voters who believe Egypt needs someone with experience at the helm and who worry about the consolidation of Islamist influence.
Thursday’s late-night presidential debate was the first in Egypt’s history and widely viewed across the Arab world. During a 90-minute build-up to the show, the broadcasters set the historical scene by screening archive footage of the 1960 US presidential debate between John F.
Kennedy and Richard Nixon – the first-ever televised presidential debate.
Moussa said he was the statesman Egypt needed to lead it through “a crisis of existence.”
Abol Fotouh said he was the man to unite the country and end “a state of polarization” between Islamists and non-Islamists including leftists and relative liberals.
Each pushed the other to clarify their views on Islamic law. Abol Fotouh asked questions of Moussa that suggested the latter was less respectful of Shari’a, or Islamic law. Moussa intimated that Abol Fotouh was saying different things to different people on the subject that he was more radical than he was letting on.
Moussa asked his rival about an oath he had pledged to the religious guide of the Brotherhood.
“What does this oath mean? Does it mean that if you are elected you will have [another] president?” he said.
Abol Fotouh replied: “It seems Amr Moussa doesn’t follow the news carefully and doesn’t know that I resigned from the Muslim Brotherhood after I decided to run for the presidency in April 2011. This resignation was because I wanted to be free to serve the nation – to be a president for all Egyptians.”
Moussa accused him of double-speak, asking how he had managed to win endorsement from both non-Islamists and hard-line Salafi Islamists.
“With Salafis, he is a Salafi. With liberals, he is a liberal. With centrists, he is a centrist,” he said.
The tension which appeared to build through the debate manifested itself in scathing closing remarks.
Moussa urged Egyptians not to vote for a man he said was unclear in his policies and was not qualified to lead a state, accusing him of “forging history.”
Abol Fotouh shot back by saying that a vote for Moussa would be a step backwards.
“We are for the first time choosing the president of Egypt,” he said. “I hope that we don’t allow ourselves to be taken back, once again, to the fallen regime, with its ideas, its substance and figures.”