CAIRO - Egyptians are for the first time getting a taste of how it is to choose a president - with groundbreaking presidential debates, face-to-face encounters with candidates on the campaign trail, and chances to question their programs, political history, and even personal lives.
The official campaigning period has been limited to a brief three weeks, and the election process has been marred with legal pitfalls, violence, and even threats of postponing of the vote due to begin May 23.
But the campaign marks one real change: Whoever becomes president will no longer be an untouchable and unquestioned dictator like ousted leader Hosni Mubarak was during his 29 years of rule.
During a late-night debate between two top candidates, the first ever in Egypt and the Arab world, crowds gathered around television screens at outdoor cafes for the unprecedented sight of their potential leaders grilling each another over their political affiliations and pasts.
For four hours, lasting until early Friday, Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh - a moderate Islamist who was a dissident during the regime of Mubarak and his predecessor Anwar Sadat - faced off against Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister who was among Egypt’s most popular politicians because of his criticism of Israel.
A simple question showed how unimaginable the debate would have been only a year and half before: The moderator asked the two to tell their health conditions and wealth. Mubarak’s health was considered a state secret - one journalist was sentenced to prison for speculating about it - and inquiring into his finances was unthinkable.
Prepared, Abolfotoh pulled out copies of his medical records and said he has slightly high blood pressure and diabetes.
Moussa, 75, was more elusive. “If there was wood here, I would knock on it,’’ he joked. “When I am elected, I have no objection to offering a medical report.’’ He then accused Abolfotoh of questioning his competitors’ health just to seem like the more transparent candidate.
“You have hidden the state of your health and your wealth,’’ the Abolfotoh, 60, shot back. His backers at a downtown Cairo cafe broke out in applause.
Moussa drew cheers when he accused his rival of loyalty only to the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group to which Abolfotoh belonged until last year, instead of to the cause of the nation. At one particularly heated point when Abolfotoh questioned his legacy as foreign minister, Moussa hopped with anger behind his podium and barked, “You don’t understand these things, you just don’t want to believe!’’