CAIRO - Two election front-runners have squared off in the Arab world's first ever presidential debate, trading barbs over the role of religion and how to bring democratic reform to Egypt.
Egyptians crowded around television sets at outdoor cafes for the four-hour debate, aired on Thursday by several independent TV channels.
The event was a startling new experiment after nearly 30 years of authoritarian rule under President Hosni Mubarak.
For most of Mubarak's rule, he was re-elected in referendums in which he was the only candidate. The last presidential election, in 2005, was the first to allow multiple candidates, but Mubarak was considered a certain winner and campaigning was weak. A direct debate was out of the question.
The debate, which ran well past midnight, pitted Amr Moussa, who served as Mubarak's foreign minister for 10 years until becoming head of the Arab League in 2001, against Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh, a moderate Islamist who broke with the Muslim Brotherhood last year. The two are among 13 candidates competing in the election, due to begin on May 23.
The debate repeatedly turned combative.
Abolfotoh sought to taint Moussa as a key member and supporter of Mubarak's regime. Moussa, in turn, painted Abolfotoh as beholden to the Muslim Brotherhood and hard-line Islamists.
"My point of reference is the nation, your point of reference is the Brotherhood," the 76-year-old Moussa, who has sought to appeal to Egyptians worried about the rising power of Islamists, told his rival. He pushed Abolfotoh to explain his stance on implementing Islamic Shariah law, suggesting that he had "made commitments" to hard-line Islamists.