Studio Al-Raīʾis: ‘The First Presidential TV Debate in The Arab World

By: Mona Abdel-Fadil, PhD Fellow at IKOS, University of Oslo.

Yesterday was a historic moment. It was the first time that a presidential TV debate was broadcast in the Arab World. The program Studio Al-Raīʾis (Studio of The President) first featured a one hour introduction, before transmitting the actual presidential debate between Amr Moussa and Abu Foutuh which lasted for several hours. It was a televised political marathon.

Studio Al-Raīʾis is a cooperation between Dream TV, Al-Shoroq and On TV, and in the first part of the program Reem Maged (On TV), Hafez Mirazi (Dream TV), Amr Khafagi (Al-Shoroq) and Amr Al-Shobuki (Parliament inspector) were in the studio. In the programme’s first part the anchors emphasized how the upcoming presidential TV debate was the first of its kind in Egypt and in the Arab world: ‘It is the first time that Egyptians do not know who will become their president! (since previous elections were rigged). It is the first time in 30 years the president will not be Hosni Mubarak! It is the first time Arab media facilitate a debate with presidential candidates where they can exchange their political views, in an attempt to sway public opinion! It is the first time we can broadcast a political debate that is part of a democratic political process! This is new to the region! And, in this sense the presidential TV debate is new to journalists, presidential candidates and voters alike!’

One of the interesting features of the first part of Studio Al-Raīʾis is that it attempted to explicate a number of questions in great detail:

–     Why were these particular presidential candidates chosen for the debate?

–     What are the strengths and pitfalls of opinion polls?

–     Which questions will the presidential candidates be asked?

–     In which order will the questions be asked?

–     Which of the presidential candidates will be asked first?

–     Which model did the journalists (in studio) use as a starting point for the debate?

–     What are the rules of the debate?

–     What should I as a voter look for in the debate?

Here follows a synopsis of the answers. The presidential candidates were chosen on the background of their topping opinion polls. Then two experts are consulted to discuss opinion polls, and how and why polls may differ in their results. The two experts describe their methods of polling and explain that polls give only an indication, that there is no guarantee that one of these two candidates will in fact become president. Charts and diagrams are flashed on the screen while experts provide a crash course in the methods of statistical polling and reading charts and results. Local specifics are added, for instance Abu Ismail and Omar Suliman who previously topped the opinion polls are now eliminated from the presidential race, and this may contribute to more fluctuations in the accuracy of the polls.

The presidential candidates will answer first to every other question. The candidate to answer the very first question is selected randomly. The order of the questions is also randomized. The journalists have looked to the US and to a lesser degree the UK and France for models.

The rules of the debate are flashed on the screen. Each candidate gets two minutes to answer a their questions. A timer will feature. After each group of questions, the candidates may ask each other a question each, also strictly regulated by time: one minute per question, two minutes per answer. The first part of the debate lasts for two hours.

In addressing the question ‘what should I as a voter look for in the debate’, the discussion took an interesting turn. Al-Shobouki said one should bear in mind that Egypt is without a long track record of democracy, and that the candidates are first time debaters. He thinks the debate will be about which of the candidates will be able to dispel the fears of voters sceptical to their candidacy. In Amr Moussa’s case, how successful will he be in maintaining that he is not one of the remainders of the old regime? In Abu Fotouh’s case, who was a Brotherhood member for decades, for voters who are worried about Islamists, will he be able to dispel their worry? The question will be how successful the candidates will be in dispelling voters fears says Amr Al-Shobuki. I think this an insightful analysis.

On this note the first part of Studio Al-Raīʾis ends. It is very interesting and commendable that the journalists go to such efforts to provide so much background information and a detailed introduction to the upcoming presidential debate for the voters. Yet, one is faced with the question of who was the target audience for this programme? Only educated elites? Curiously, Studio Al-Raīʾis was presented in advanced Modern Standard Arabic, rendering the information inaccessible to the poorly educated masses of Egypt.

The Second Part of Studio Al-Raīʾis features a two hour debate between presidential candidates Amr Moussa and Abu Fotouh, facilitated by Mona Al-Shazli. Before the actual debate, the mood is set with collage of photographs from the Egyptian revolution set to a background of soft music. I will now discuss certain aspects of the debate itself.

In the first question – what kind of Egypt do you dream of? – Abu Fotouh appeared to have the upper hand in the debate. In his allotted two minutes, he spoke eloquently and managed to weave in both his critique of the old regime, and his vision for a new nation. He said he dreamt of a country free from (previous) corruption, a democratic nation, based on the principles and intentions (maqasid) of sharia, a nation where citizens could live in dignity, with both jobs and food on their plates. While, Amr Moussa also mentioned, sharia’ principles, new democracy and a nation far from the previous ‘suffering’, his answers came across as less strong, perhaps even less sincere.

To the second question – how would you have dealt with the (recent) Abbasiyya crisis if you were president at the time? – Amr Moussa responded that it is important to uphold the unity of the people in this important transitional phase of Egypt, that more strife and chaos is not the answer, and that security would be a priority. This answer is reminiscent of the stance the SCAF uphold in connection with the incident in question. Their claim is that violent insurgents attempted to attack the defence ministry and SCAF had to obtain order, to prevent Egypt from falling to chaos. Abu Fotouh’s answer on the other hand, was a clear demonstration of the opposing view. The nation must allow for peaceful demonstrations, and protect the rights of demonstrators no matter what. He questions the narrative about chaos and violence, as there are reports of medical staff being rounded up. Regardless, the killing, should not have happened. Even if it were true that the demonstrations was not peaceful, there are other ways of curtailing people who resort to violence, like arrest without bloodshed. The nation’s primary task is to protect its citizens. In this exchange of viewpoints, Abu Fotouh comes across as more ‘revolutionary’, while Amr Moussa appears to be feeding into the old regime’s (and SCAF’s) narrative of order and chaos. And, once again Abu Fotouh appeared to be better at getting his points across in a succinct manner. He also had more points.

There are however certain instances when Amr Moussa excelled in his political commentary. For instance, in response to Abu Fotouh’s question whether he was a residue of the old regime, Amr Moussa convincingly reeled off a sequence of sentences that demonstrated that conveyed that he was not part of the regime that fell. He left the government over ten years ago. And that he was committed to Egypt and Egyptian’s wellbeing, which is part of the reason of why he left. He had no bad conscious in this regard.

Both candidates underline that Egyptians are religious and that sharia’ principles will guide law (as today). Anything else would be political suicide in today’s political climate.  Amr Moussa also makes a point of mentioning Christians and their rights (personal codes).

In one of his questions to Abu Fotouh, Amr Moussa tries to insinuate that Abu Fotouh has held open-minded views, that he later has retracted. For instance, Amr Moussa states that Abu Fotouh has previously said that Christians should be able to freely convert to Islam and vice versa, but later has seemed to moderate this stance. ‘What is your position on this now?’ he asks. Abu Fotouh retaliates by stating that these were not his exact words, what he said was the God has given humans the right to chose their faith. Fellow believers are free to try to persuade the one wishing to convert not to leave his faith. Thus Abu Fotouh’s response is rather abstract, and the question of whether conversion from Islam will be legal appears to be a reluctant yes, at best.

Abu Fotouh repeatedly mentions sharia’ during the debate. At one point he talked about how the principle of ‘for the good of the people’ (maslaat alnās) is what the sharia’ is based on and this means that education, agriculture, and society if guided by sharia’ – would always be to the benefit of the citizens. ‘The sharia’ is merciful and beautiful’ he added. While these abstract notions were probably an attempt at appease Islamist sceptics that they have nothing to fear if he is elected president, it is doubtful that this had the desired effect.

Another interesting sequence is when the presidential candidates were asked to comment on the role of the army. Here, Amr Moussa, once again offered a perspective close to SCAF’s view stating that the army’s role is to secure order in a transitional phase, and then they will retreat to their original role. While, Abu Fotouh’s response was more elegant and more in the ‘revolutionary spirit’. He maintained that there is a difference between SCAF and the army. The army is still cherished and loved by the people for their role in the nation on a general level and particularly for their role in assisting the Egyptian revolution. This is not the same issue as the discontent with SCAF’s rule and their mistakes.

The debate moves on to issues of economy and health where both presidential candidates mention their commitment to plans of social security and health care for all citizens, and highlight the needs of the poor masses.

In another round of questions where the candidates address each other, Abu Fotouh attempts to arrest Amr Moussa for saying ‘the general principles of sharia’ will guide Egyptian law. Abu Fotouh asks Amr Mousssa how ‘general principles’ are different from ‘principles of sharia’. This strategy backfires. In his answer, Amr Moussa is at is best. He responds, that nitpicking on ‘general principles’ vs. ‘principles’ is not really the issue at stake. His stance is that the principles of sharia’ should guide the law (as now), but that the sharia’ should not be implemented wholesale. Amr Moussa then proceeds to address contradictions in Abu Fotouh’s own formulations. He says ‘You say that you are moderate, that you are for individual freedoms etc. But you said you want to implement sharia’ values and the sharia’. This means you want to implement the rulings (akām) (…) People want to know what you really mean, I want to know!’

Here Amr Moussa once again insinuates that Abu Fotouh may be speaking with two tongues: Abu Fotouh’s smooth talk and abstract notions may be an intentional distraction from the type of Islamization he actually envisions for the nation. This is a powerful attack, and will speak to influential voters who are unsettled by Islamist agendas. In this sense, Amr Moussa, while weaker than Abu Fotouh in certain answers, was able to deliver a number of strategic political punches to his opponent. Abu Fotouh on the other hand, succeeded in providing a number of well-balanced answers throughout the debate, and most importantly his responses demonstrated that of the two his opinions often mirror ‘revolutionary’ stances in the public debate, and a deconstruction of the chaos narrative. Still, I believe sceptics of both candidates may remain sceptical after last night’s performance.

Which way the pubic opinion will sway in the actual presidential elections is too early to say. But before the elections on the 23rd and 24th of May many Egyptians will be tuning into Studio Al-Raīʾis for the second historical debate featuring presidential candidates…