A handout picture obtained from the Egyptian daily Al Shuruq shows hopeful presidential candidate and former Arab League Secretary General Amr Mussa, right, shaking hands with moderate Islamist fellow candidate, Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, during a live debate in Cairo. Image Credit: AFP

Cairo: Two front-runners, vying in Egypt's landmark presidential elections later this month, taunted each other about their past in a historic television debate late on Thursday.

Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister in the regime of the toppled president Hosni Mubarak, accused his Islamist rival Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh of serving the interests of the Muslim Brotherhood of which he was a member for years.

"Your opposition and defence were for the Brotherhood, not for Egypt," Moussa told Abul Fotouh during the debate, the first of its kind in Egypt's history.

Abul Fotouh, a physician, was a senior official in the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, which expelled him last year after he announced his intention to stand for Egypt's president in defiance of a ban imposed by the group.

During the debate that ran until the early hours of Friday, Abul Fotouh in his turn accused Moussa of being a senior figure in the Mubarak regime that was toppled in a popular revolt in February last year.

"I opposed the regime while I was still inside it. That's why I was later sidelined," retorted Moussa, who served as foreign minister for 10 years until 2001 when he became the chief of the Arab League.

The debate, broadcast live on the two private television stations Dream and On TV, came less than two weeks before Egypt holds its first presidential polls since Mubarak's ouster.

Moussa, 75, seems favoured by secular-minded voters, while Abul Fotouh, 60, projects an image of a liberal Islamist.

During the debate, both contenders were asked about their own views on a wide range of issues including freedom of faith, foreign policy and the army's status after a power transfer from the military to an elected civilian authority due to take place by the end of June.

Moussa, who rode a wave of popularity among the Egyptians in the 1990s for his anti-Israel rhetoric, called Israel a "country practising a hostile policy." "But the president's responsibility is to handle matters wisely and head off a showdown (with Israel)," he added.

For Abul Fotouh, Israel is a "strategic enemy". Egypt was the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. But public anti-Israel feelings run high in Egypt.

In addition to Moussa and Abul Fotouh, 11 others are competing in the presidential elections to be held on May 23-24, with a likely runoff vote scheduled for June 16.