Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Presidential Debate

A week ago, I wrote a post mentioning the lack of negative campaigning in the Egyptian presidential elections. A political science student at Cairo University had told me, “We just haven’t figured it out yet.” He was obviously oversimplifying, but that conversation came surging back when I watched the first debate on television several nights ago. They had definitely figured it out.

The two front-runners [and this debate only strengthened their lead], Amr Moussa and Abdel Moneim Abuel Fotouh stood side by side on one of the most popular television programs, facing two of the most popular news show hosts. Each candidate had two minutes to answer each of the twenty-four questions. They were also able to ask one another questions. 

Analyst Issandr El Amrani summed up the two candidates well. Moussa, he writes, “appears to be a tolerable candidate for most Egyptians, even if they might hold their noses,” while Abuel Fotouh, “is the candidate of hope and change, a rare figure who unites the political spectrum - even if his discourse suffers from blurriness as a result.”

A doctor named Mostafa Hussein translated the bulk of the long exchange, which you can see in raw form here. Moussa and Abuel Fotouh have something in common that is seldom articulated as a parallel. Moussa was a leading minister in the Mubarak regime, but for the last ten years has been outside the national government. Abuel Fotouh was once a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but has since distanced himself and is now what Shadi Hamid in Foreign Policy callsthe Rorschach test of Egyptian politics. Liberals think he's more liberal than he actually is. Conservatives hope he's more conservative.”

Thus, both Moussa and Abuel Fotouh have positioned themselves just outside major political power blocs, so they are open to the accusations leveled against these blocs, but can also credibly claim distance from them.

It played out predictably: Moussa focused on the need for ‘transparency,’ something the Mubarak government notoriously lacked, while targeting Abuel Fotouh’s Islamist past. Abuel Fotouh shot back with openings like, “I'd like to ask Mr. Moussa, as a member of the past regime, which people revolted against, can he become part of the solution?” Moussa, a bit ridiculously, tried to position himself as a revolutionary. “I opposed state policy while foreign minister…we all helped bring down the regime.”

It’s no surprise how Moussa became Egypt’s leading diplomat. He honed sharply on Abuel Fotouh’s more lenient statements about the ability of Muslims to convert to Christianity, knowing this would alienate Abuel Fotouh’s more hard-line religious supporters. He also repeatedly pulled the Brotherhood card, which makes Abuel Fotouh look like he could be more loyal to an organization than to the entire country. “You were in the political opposition in the framework of the Muslim Brotherhood and not in the entire national sense,” he said. “I was out of the foreign ministry because of my opposition to the [Mubarak regime] and their unjust practices and I am in solidarity with the people.”

After commercials, they returned to talk about tax policies, the minimum wage, and the role of the military. The differences were small, because obviously debates are not only about facts. There were no Kennedy-Nixon moments: each looked presidential and relatable. Yet every Egyptian I spoke with afterwards said they thought that Moussa undoubtedly won. “You were a Brotherhood member,” Moussa had said. “Will this mean that as president there is someone above you in the organization.” Abuel Fotouh responded smartly, saying “Amr Moussa clearly doesn’t read the news. I left the organization and no longer swear allegiance to it.” But the damage was done.

These personal attacks might have seemed superficial or cheap, but I think they were powerful. If you wanted to have any power or political experience in Egypt over the last thirty years, you either had to collaborate with the regime, like Moussa, or join opposition groups that could only gain influence by relying on secrecy, like Abuel Fotouh. There just wasn’t any other way, it turns out, to do it (gaining power abroad, like Mohamed El Baradei, opens up accusations of being ‘out of touch’ with Egyptians) There was a poisonous political atmosphere in Egypt, and it festered for a long time, so getting past it will take a lot of grievance-airing. 

Everyone is using words like “birth pangs” and “transition” and “figuring out” to explain the messier aspects of Egyptian democracy as it proceeds towards the first presidential election. I don’t buy it. Every election in the U.S. (and perhaps everywhere) involves someone from the incumbent party arguing they are not responsible for failures and corruption and a challenger who has to prove the cleanliness of their record.  At least these two candidates know where Libya is, don’t make up confusing words like ‘Obamneycare,’ forget which departments of the government they’d eliminate, talk about their wife’s “couple of cadillacs” in Detroit, compare themselves to serial killers, or (because Obama has his faults too) campaign with cutesy stories of web designers.

 “We haven’t figured it out yet,” said the university student. At this rate, I hope they never do.

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