Egypt's mindboggling first time choosing a leader

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 for the election definitely marks one real change: Whoever becomes president will no longer be an untouchable and unquestionable pharaoh like ousted leader Hosni Mubarak was during his 29 years of authoritarian rule.

During a late night debate between two top candidates, the first ever in Egypt and the Arab world, crowds gathered around TV 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 vocal 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 waded into Abolfotoh, accusing him 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 60-year-old Abolfotoh shot back. His backers in a young crowd at a downtown Cairo cafe broke out in applause.

Moussa drew cheers when he accused his rival of paying homage 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!"

"The debate exposes the faults of both," said Mohammed el-Doh, a 28-year old medical equipment engineer at the cafe. "People have never seen this before. We are not used to it, and the candidates are taking jabs at one another. It chips away at the politician's respectability."

On the campaign trail, all the 13 candidates have had to face public exposure, often more focused on the personal than on their economic or social programs. That could be a sign of how their programs had few clear differences on tackling Egypt's myriad of woes — but also a reflection of the new fixation of finding out as much as possible about the new leader.

"We are in a state of conflict between the new culture and the original one that put the ruler in an exceptional place, above the state and politics, a pharaoh who embodies divine and earthly rule," said Wael Abdel-Fattah, a cultural commentator and columnist.

"Mubarak was everything.There are people who defended him as a leader, a father. Now this is disintegrating, and will fall."

During Mubarak's rule, most of his campaigns were state-organized and tightly controlled with audiences selected by security agents to ensure they adhere to a strict script of shouted praise and poetry for the leader during his appearances. In one incident, in 1999, during a visit to the Suez canal city of Port Said, a man approaching with a petition and a complaint was shot dead.

It wasn't until 2005 that Mubarak even had to face a competitor, since previously he ran in yes-or-no referendums. That election was Mubarak's last, before he was toppled on Feb. 11, 2011.

In contrast, the current candidates at their rallies face crowds mixed with supporters, the undecided and opponents — who don't hesitate to ridicule the man on stage. Moussa was heckled at a university in south Egypt and called "feloul," or "remnants of the old regime."

The candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Morsi, has been dogged by his derisive nickname, "the spare." Morsi was the back-up candidate after the group's first hopeful was disqualified.

So at Morsi's rallies, protesters often hold up spare tires to taunt him.

The candidates run through interviews on the slew of evening TV political programs that not only question their programs but analyze their speech, mannerisms and temper.

"This is a dreamer, not a statesman," one commentator said describing candidate Hisham Bastawisi, a judge who was a dissident under Mubarak.

Public polling, which was previously conducted only by Mubarak-allied institutions and required security clearance, has now mushroomed. So far trends in polls by multiple groups have been hard to grasp — one put support for Moussa at 16 percent of determined voters, another as low as 7 percent. But polls agree that much of the population remains undecided — as high as 56 percent according to one.

That could reflect the challenge of being faced by a choice for the first time, when many are uncertain about what sort of candidate they want.

Some fear Islamist domination, some think it's time for Islamists to hold power. Others are torn between wanting a strongman — someone who knows the ins and outs of the old regime and the military — or a revolutionary with new vision.

As a result, a voter can bounce between one candidate and his exact opposite.

Mohsen Abdel-Fattah, an Egyptian living in Saudi Arabia who was among Egyptian expatriates who began voting Friday, was wavering between two who would seem to have little in common: Mubarak's last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, considered a die-hard symbol of the old regime, and Hamdeen Sabahi, a former opposition figure.

He said as he entered the voting station in Riyadh, most people there were backing Sabahi, so he did as well.

After a turbulent 15 months since Mubarak's fall, many remain skeptical that a real democratic transformation will take place, questioning whether the ruling military generals will truly relinquish power to a civilian.

Mohammed Desouki, a 34-year old activist, had his laptop open at the cafe during the debate, giving a running commentary on his Facebook page.

"The problem is we have choice, but is it effective, real?" he said. The constitution that sets the authorities of the new president has not been yet written, one of the issues complicating the transition. "My real fear is that we have a president with no powers."

Wael Abdel-Fattah, the cultural commentator, said it was natural that having a choice for the first time would be confusing.

"Everyone is concerned, but for the first time the regime is also concerned. Till the last minute no one knows who the president is."