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Egypt sees landmark election debate

Two election front-runners, a former foreign minister and a moderate Islamist, squared off in the Arab world's first presidential debate, trading barbs over the role of religion and how to bring democratic reform to Egypt.

Egyptians crowded around television sets in outdoor cafes for the four-hour debate, shown on several independent TV channels - a startling new experiment for Egypt after nearly 30 years of authoritarian rule under President Hosni Mubarak, ousted last year after a wave of protests.

For most of Mr 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 Mr Mubarak was considered a certain winner and campaigning was weak - and a direct debate was out of the question.

The debate, which ran well past midnight, pitted Amr Moussa, who served as Mr 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, as the two candidates, each standing behind a podium, were also given time to throw questions at each other.

Mr Abolfotoh sought to taint Mr Moussa as a key member and supporter of Mr Mubarak's regime. Mr Moussa, in turn, painted Mr Abolfotoh as beholden to the Muslim Brotherhood and hardline Islamists.

"My point of reference is the nation, your point of reference is the Brotherhood," 76-year-old Mr Moussa, who has sought to appeal to Egyptians worried about the rising power of Islamists, told his rival.

He pushed Mr Abolfotoh to explain his stance on implementing Islamic Shariah law, suggesting that he had "made commitments" to hardline Islamists. "I want to hear one word of opposition you said under Mubarak's regime," Mr Abolfotoh, 60, shot back, pointing out that Mr Moussa said in 2010 that he would back Mr Mubarak for another term as president.

At least one more debate is expected, though it has not been announced which candidates will participate. Along with Mr Moussa and Mr Abolfotoh, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood Mohammad Mursi and Mr Mubarak's last prime minister Ahmed Shafiq are also seen as strong front-runners.

If no candidate emerges with a majority in the May 23-24 first round of voting, a run-off between the top two will be held on June 16 and 17.

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