The televised presidential debate that took place in Egypt is an event to build upon.
Nothing in the above statement is particularly groundbreaking, but it is necessary to recognize that the televised debate between the presidential candidates, former Arab League Secretary General Amr Musa and the Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, represents an important milestone in the struggling path towards democracy in Egypt. In our political and public life it is not familiar to see the Egyptians and Arabs dueling in an exchange of harsh statements and stances, trying to persuade the general public, and seeking to gain supremacy for their argument in front of millions of viewers to convince them and win their votes, all live on air.
It is no longer possible for a candidate to relax and disregard whatever has or has not been said, under the pretext that the public will not be able to hold them accountable.
Yes, the debate was able to attract unprecedented interest from the Arab public, and not only in Egypt. The public were able to interact with the debate constantly, from the beginning and throughout the long hours it was aired.
By praising the debate here is not to say that it did not have its shortcomings, and all the criticism that has been lodged against it is justified. The debate was confined to Musa and Aboul Fotouh without the remaining candidates, even if these two were selected as they were the most popular in the polls. The channel that hosted the media event was a private one, not a public media outlet funded by taxpayers as is usually the case, which meant that opinion polls were not able to immediately determine how the candidates’ performance impacted upon voters’ choices, and many facts and figures were omitted from the debate.
All of the above criticism is justified, and perhaps even more could be said in this regard.
However, it is enough to touch upon the impact of this debate by examining the comments posted on Twitter or Facebook, or through the many subsequent articles and discussions, to understand how Musa and Aboul Fotouh’s performances serve as an important measure of public opinion. We can gauge the extent to which the public have been influenced by the performance and ideas of the candidates, and most importantly the extent of the public’s desire to taste the democracy that the Egyptians paid, and are continuing to pay, a heavy price for.
The well-known Egyptian politician Ayman Nour wrote an article after the debate. He stated that his intention to run for the presidency in 2005, and his request for a debate with former President Hosni Mubarak, was what led to him being imprisoned. He recalled how one of the prison wardens had spoken to him saying: “this is the least you deserve for your insult to the president, and your request for a debate”.
If such a request could lead to imprisonment a few years ago, then presidential debates have become a reality today; part of the mechanism of political and media work. Yet there are always those who try to exploit the pitfalls that emerge in Syria, Egypt and elsewhere, to condemn the Arab revolutions and to try to convince us that Ben Ali’s Tunisia, Mubarak’s Egypt, Saleh’s Yemen and Gaddafi’s Libya were better than the state of these countries today, and that all that is happening in these countries now is nothing but steps leading towards failure and major disappointment.
The Egyptians and other Arab revolutionary societies are facing major challenges and tasks, but events such as presidential candidate debates inspire democracy, there is no doubt about it.