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Egypt’s presidential debate was a historic triumph for democracy. So why did we ignore it? (NATIONAL POST COMMENT) Jonathan Kay 05/15/12) Source: http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2012/05/14/egypts-presidential-debate-was-a-historic-triumph-for-democracy-so-why-did-we-ignore-it/
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On Thursday night, something historic took place in Egypt: The first televised presidential debate ever held in the Arab world. This was four-and-a-half hours of real cut-and-thrust on sensitive issues — involving the role of Islam in public life, the infamous “virginity tests” performed by security forces, even the candidates’ own personal finances — between two media-savvy men: former Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa, and self-described Islamist moderate Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh. Eight years after George W. Bush first declared his freedom agenda for the Arab world, this is the first solid evidence that modern, mass-media-driven democracy, as a Western voter would recognize it, is taking root in the biggest and most influential country in the Arab world.
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Egyptians themselves know how important the moment was: During the pre-debate show, broadcasters rolled archive footage of America’s historical counterpart, the 1960 debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. (There also were surreal moments: The show featured footage from Sarah Palin’s 2008 debate with Joe Biden, and Saturday Night Live’s 2008 parody featuring Tina Fey.)
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Yet here in the West, the Egyptian debate was treated as a second- tier news event. The New York Times covered it on page 9. The Wall Street Journal put it on page 7. This newspaper put it on page 20. The Globe & Mail didn’t cover it at all. Why?
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The first reason, I’d speculate, is that political developments in Egypt since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster have been complex, and often marred by violence. There have been demonstrations leading to arrests and deaths, which in turn have led to more demonstrations. Last month, in a major plot twist, the Egyptian Electoral Commission disqualified 10 of the 23 presidential candidates — including the Muslim Brotherhood’s high profile aspirant, Khairat al-Shater — for alleged electoral-law breaches. In short: From the moment Mubarak was ousted, Egypt’s plot-line has been increasingly muddled. Over the last year, many Westerners simply lost interest.
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The second reason Egypt is getting tuned out concerns Israel — the lens through which much Western news coverage of the Middle East is framed.
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For months, vocal supporters of the Jewish state have sounded the alarm about political developments in Egypt, especially the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. Conservative blogs and media outlets have emphasized scattered news items — disruptions in Egyptian gas deliveries to Israel, Egyptian politicians’ comments about “revisiting” the peace treaty, an Iranian boat passing through the Suez Canal — that, taken together, suggest an Egyptian swing toward anti-Israeli militancy. The idea here is that Egypt already has been “lost” to radical Islam by Barack Obama and the West, so it doesn’t matter much who actually wins the election.
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In Thursday’s debate, the subject of Israel did come up. But it was brief and understated. There were no grand Nasserite calls for war against the Zionist entity — just the typical Arab boilerplate about the Palestinians.
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In fact, it wasn’t until four hours of the four-and-a-half hour debate had passed that the word “Israel” was even mentioned. At this point, Abul Fotouh said that Israel should be regarded as a strategic enemy — until the creation of a Palestinian state. For his part, Moussa said he would reconsider Egyptian-Israeli relations — again, in the context of the Palestinian issue. And that was it for the Zionism file. Turns out Egypt’s voters don’t care half as much about Israel as Middle East watchers have been telling us.
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The vast majority of Thursday’s debate was centred, instead, on domestic matters, including the three most pressing issues for the country: (a) the Islamic character of Egyptian society; (b) the economy; and (c) civil liberties, and the treatment of dissent.
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In his opening monologue, Abul-Futouh used the modern Islamist tactic of citing shariah as a force for social justice — as opposed to just a set of restrictive behavioural codes. He embraced the slogan of Tahir Square protesters: “bread, freedom, social justice.” Moussa, playing on fears that electing an Islamist would lead to a theocratic dictatorship, countered that Abul-Futouh once had pledged allegiance to the Muslim Brotherhood. Echoing 1960-era fears about JFK and the Pope, Moussa wondered aloud whether Abul-Futouh would take his orders from Brotherhood clerics if he is elected president — to which Abul- Futouh reminded everyone that Moussa appeared to have supported Mubarak’s re-election as recently as 2010.
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Both candidates were eager to distance themselves from terror and radicalism — including jihadi groups such as Gamaa Islamiya. Abul Futoh made a point of declaring that “Copt [Chrtistians] are equal citizens like all other Egyptians, there will be no discrimination.”
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Egypt held the world’s attention when massive crowds first showed up at Tahir Square demanding freedom. It is time for the world to start paying attention again. Not only is democracy beginning to take root in Egypt, but the country’s presidential aspirants are candidly wrestling with the thorniest issues the society faces. Resolving the clash between Islam and secularism, and between Egypt’s autocratic past and its democratic aspirations, will take many years. But as Thursday’s debate shows, the process is well underway. That’s something worth noticing — and celebrating. (© 2012 National Post, a division of Postmedia Network Inc. 05/15/12)
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