NEW: Abdelmoneim Abolfotoh calls Amre Moussa a "symbol of the former regime"
NEW: Moussa points to Abolfotoh's involvement in Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya
The two were the only two of 13 candidates in Egypt's first ever such presidential debate
A survey says they are the front-runners, Egyptians embrace democracy and Islam
The two leading candidates to become Egypt’s next president after Hosni Mubarak squared off for hours Thursday and into Friday in the nation’s first such televised debate, just two weeks ahead of the country’s election.
A pair of private television stations, but not state TV, aired the showdown between Amre Moussa and Abdelmoneim Abolfotoh that finally ended around 2 a.m. Friday (8 p.m. ET). Not including a break, both men ended up standing on stage for about three hours.
The tone was generally even-keeled, with a few notable points of contention.
One came when Abolfotoh questioned whether Egyptians could support a “symbol of the former regime” in Moussa, who served as foreign minister under Mubarak.
“I had left the government 10 years ago, so I wasn’t part of the problem,” Moussa said of those railing against Mubarak’s government, before turning the tables on Abolfotoh, a candidate seen as a moderate who once belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood. “You, as well, kept silent. You were defending the position of the Muslim Brotherhood, not the position or interests of Egyptians.”
Moussa later pointed to Abolfotoh’s involvement in Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, or the Egyptian Islamic Group, which had members who were convicted of killing hundreds of Egyptians.
Abolfotoh said he is proud to be part of building that movement when it was peaceful in the 1970s, before again trying to lump Moussa in with the reported killings and torturing of thousands while he served in the 1990s under Mubarak.
A poll published Monday by the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies showed Moussa leading by a considerable margin, thanks to his popularity in poorer, more densely populated provinces, where many long for stability associated with the old regime.
Behind in second was Abolfotoh, who does particularly well among more educated voters according to the same poll.
The two answered questions on the constitution, taxes and balancing human rights with providing security during the first part of the debate, before turning their attentions to foreign affairs, priorities and their opinion of military leaders who have been Egypt’s ruling power since Mubarak’s ouster.
Abolfotoh tried to set himself apart from Egypt’s current leadership by blaming “the different parties involved” for clashes this spring Cairo’s central Abbasiya district that left one dead and about 300 injured
“I don’t think if I was the president that the Abbasiya incident would have happened at all,” he said. “It is important to stress that the right of peaceful demonstration is one of the gains of the January 25 revolution.”
Moussa, a proudly secular candidate who most recently was secretary-general of the Arab League, explained his vision for an Egypt that is committed to making citizens’ lives better.
“We want to ensure that every citizen in all of Egypt – in the north, south, east and west – that the state is moving in the right way to progress and to respond to people’s requirements,” said Egypt’s former foreign minister and one-time Arab League secretary-general.
Abolfotoh and Moussa are among 13 candidates vying for the presidency. Among those not invited to Thursday’s debate were Mohamed Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party.
While his party holds a majority in parliament, Morsi enjoys less popularity personally, placing fourth in the Al-Ahram poll.
Asked Wednesday whether the Muslim Brotherhood would move Egypt in the direction of an Iranian-style Islamic republic, Morsi told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that his party supports democracy and not theocracy.
“There is no such thing called an ‘Islamic democracy,’ ” he said. “There is democracy only, and democracy is the instrument that is present now. The people are the source of authority.”
Another candidate absent from Thursday’s debate was former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, who was third in the Al-Ahram poll.
Egyptians will vote for their new president nearly 16 months after the popular uprising that brought down Mubarak in February 2011.
Distrust and anger, particularly against the military’s power in Egypt’s governmental affairs, still inspire protests, some of which have been marked by deadly clashes.
Twelve died and hundreds were injured last week in violence that ensued during protests against the military in Cairo’s central Abbasiya district.
The protests erupted amid a backdrop of frustration about the pace of reform since Mubarak’s ouster and over concern that Egypt’s military leadership is delaying the transition to civilian rule.
Although the anger against the military is palpable, the Egyptian population as a whole still has a favorable view of the the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, according to a Pew Research Center survey published Tuesday.
The survey also found among Egyptians strong support for democracy – preferring it widely to any other form of government – as well as the institutions that support it, such as a free press.
Concerns about the economy ranked about as high with Egyptian voters in the Pew survey as the importance of democracy.
Islam is seen as a desirable basis for making laws, and most Egyptians favor a more religious approach to society as seen in Saudi Arabia over the secular approach of Turkey.
CNN’s Hamdi Alkhshali and Amir Ahmed contributed to this report.