Religious Freedom, Shariah Take Center Stage During Egypt's Presidential Debate

Election Front-Runners Face-Off in Nation's First Televised Presidential Debate

The two front-runners for the Egyptian presidency recently faced off during the country's first televised presidential debate, with religion and Islamic law dominating the discussion.

The Islamist candidate, Abdul Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former leading figure in the Muslim Brotherhood who some fear may impose an Islamic state should he be elected, debated on Thursday Amr Moussa, the one-time Arab League chief and former foreign minister under Hosni Mubarak. Moussa, a moderate, is seen by experts as a favorable choice for Egyptians, who long for stability after more than a year of economic and political tumult and fear the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Meanwhile, Fotouh has been reaching out to Islamists, liberals and supporters of the revolution, of which he was a supporter.

After the country's parliament was dominated by Islamist parties, the next big step in establishing a new government -- after Mubarak was ousted following the Arab Spring uprising of Jan. 2011 -- is choosing the new president. Egypt's presidential elections will take place on May 23 and 24. The president will be named in June.

Among foreign policy and domestic topics, religion was a big issue to which candidates referred each other on several occasions. Following the revolution, Egypt fell shortly into chaos, which seemed to have unleashed violence against certain religious minorities in this overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim country. Most notably, multiple counts of violence against the Coptic Christian community were reported over the past year.

Each front-runner was asked a wide range of questions Thursday, from how their powers should be limited in the presidency, to more traditional topics such as health and education. Both candidates agreed that the constitution should be guided by Shariah, or Islamic law. But Moussa reportedly stressed that the rights of Christians and other minorities must be protected and religion should not influence public policies on education and economics.

How the candidates see the relationship between the Islamic legal code and public life is yet to be specified by both.

At one point, Moussa reportedly asked his interlocutor a question about religious freedom and Christianity.

"You once said in a televised interview that Muslims can convert to Christianity and vice versa... is this still your position?" Moussa asked, as reported by Ahram Online. Fotouh reportedly appeared baffled by the question, before stressing the importance of freedom of belief and of a moderate understanding of Islam.

"We want to know your vision about applying Shariah law, especially as you are now backed by radical Islamist groups; and in politics nothing is for free, there must be a deal and we need to know," Moussa continued.

Fotouh, who attempted to paint his opponent as too secular, according to experts, fired back: "What do you mean by the general principles of Shariah?"

Moussa insisted that the general principles of Islamic law should be implemented as they existed in the pre-Mubarak, 1971 constitution. The former Arab League chief also accused Fotouh of being loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood rather than to the nation. "You defended the Muslim Brotherhood and not Egyptians," he said at one point.

Overall, Moussa presented himself as someone who would respect Islamic law but not allow discrimination against minorities or an expansion of Islamic jurisprudence, while Aboul Fotouh portrayed himself as someone who would apply Islamic law fairly but also limit it to the role that has been spelled out in the constitution for years.

The two are among 13 presidential candidates. The other front-runners are Mohammed Mursi, the chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and Ahmed Shafiq, a former air force chief who served as prime minister in the last days of Mubarak's rule.

Moussa is supported by 78 percent of Egypt's Christians, according to a recent poll. At the same time, 22 percent seem to be supporting Fotouh. The poll, conducted by the Egyptian Union of Human Rights Organizations (EUHRO), also showed that all participants completely rejected Salafist candidate, Hazem Abu Ismail, as well as the other candidate of the Brotherhood, Khairat Al-Shater, who said in April that Shariah should become the law of the land, and was criticized by minority groups.

"Christians are seriously worried from candidates with Islamic background especially because they do not hide their hardline stance towards Copts and refuse a civil state," said Naguib Gebrail, head of EUHRO.

Fotouh has reportedly severed ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, which had initially said it would not put forward a candidate. The Brotherhood eventually reversed its decision by putting out Morsi to seek the job. News reports said Morsi refused to participate in the televised debate.

The Muslim Brotherhood has come under intense criticism lately, having dominated the parliament and reportedly kept minorities away from the decision-making process. In April, the tensions made Coptic Christians quit talks over a new constitution.

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