Amr Moussa.
Amr Moussa. Photo by AP
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Egyptian presidential hopefuls Amr Moussa and Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh said in a televised debate on Thursday that Israel is an adversary and enemy, and pledged to review Egypt’s peace treaty with the country.

The two election front-runners, a former foreign minister and a moderate Islamist, squared off in the Arab world's first ever presidential debate, watched by millions across the Arab world. The two sought to trip each other up on questions ranging from their perspective on Islamic sharia law to their views on Israel during the four hour debate, which was broadcast on two privately owned television channels.

They repeatedly accused each other of distorting the facts.

Both candidates said they would review Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel, a country Abol Fotouh described as an enemy and Moussa called an adversary. Last month, Moussa told told an election rally in southern Egypt that the Camp David agreement was "dead and buried."

As the debate moved to foreign policy in the early hours of the morning, the veteran diplomat Moussa made a gaffe, when he called Iran an Arab state.

A former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Abol Fotouh portrayed Moussa as a member of the Mubarak government that had corrupted Egypt. "There is a rule that says that one who created the problem cannot solve it," said the 60-year old.

Moussa, who was head of the Arab League at the time of the uprising, defended his record as Egypt's foreign minister but added that he had left the post in 2001.

"The regime that fell, fell with Moussa outside of it," said the 75-year old. "I say, you too were silent. You used to defend the positions of the Muslim Brotherhood and not Egyptian interests."

The two are among 13 candidates competing in the election, due to begin on May 23.

Other contenders include Mohamed Mursi, the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate, Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's last prime minister, and Hamdeen Sabahy, a leftist. The organisers of Thursday's debate said Moussa and Abol Fotouh had been invited because they were ahead in the polls.

Past lives

The debate repeatedly swiveled back to Moussa and Abol Fotouh's past lives.

Moussa asked Abol Fotouh about an oath he had pledged to the religious guide of the Brotherhood. "What does this oath mean? Does it mean that if you are elected you will have (another) president?" he said.

Abol Fotouh replied: "It seems Amr Moussa doesn't follow the news carefully and doesn't know that I resigned from the Muslim Brotherhood after I decided to run for the presidency in April, 2011. This resignation was because I wanted to be free to serve the nation - to be a president for all Egyptians."

Moussa accused him of double-speak, asking how he had managed to win endorsement from both liberals and hardline Salafi Islamists. "With Salafis, he is a Salafi. With liberals, he is a liberal. With centrists, he is a centrist," he said.

The tension which appeared to build through the debate manifested itself in scathing closing remarks.

Moussa urged Egyptians not to vote for a man he said was unclear in his policies and was not qualified to lead a state, accusing him of "forging history".

"I am sorry to say that we must warn the Egyptian people," Moussa said. "The next president must have certain qualifications that can lead the country."

Abol Fotouh shot back by saying that a vote for Moussa would be a step backwards. "We are for the first time choosing the president of Egypt," he said. "I hope that we don't allow ourselves to be taken back, once again, to the fallen regime, with its ideas, its substance and figures," he said.