The presidential candidates confronted each other in front of the TV cameras for four hours on Thursday, with only two breaks of about 30 minutes. They argued about security, the economy, education — and the role of sharia law.
The location was Cairo. The more secular candidate, former diplomat Amr Moussa, accused his opponent of being an Islamist hard-liner in moderate's clothing. The Islamist, former Muslim Brotherhood leader Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, accused Moussa of complicity in the former Hosni Mubarak regime.
This was the first ever such presidential debate in the Arab region, closely watched by a majority of Egyptians. Politics has come to Egypt big time, but, in a country with no reliable polls, no one is certain which of 13 candidates will win in the first round in late May. Probably it will be an Islamist.
I'm traveling to Cairo today to watch this crucial country's effort to mesh democracy and Islam. Then I'll head for Lebanon, a gathering place for Syrian activists trying to unseat dictator Bashar al Assad. Assad has rejected political reforms and stiffed a U.N. mediation effort. He has provoked a civil war that is now attracting Arab jihadis who seek a new cause, including remnants of AQI (al-Qaeda in Iraq).
In neither Egypt nor Syria is a worst-case scenario preordained, but it's hard to be optimistic. The Middle East has taken on a revolutionary momentum that makes predictions very risky.
But — in an effort to get some clues about what to expect in the near term — I'll be looking at the prospects for an Egypt or Syria ruled by adherents of political Islam.
The television debate in Cairo homed in on these questions. In the secularist corner was Amr Moussa. He looks likely to split the non-Islamist vote with Ahmed Shafiq, the last prime minister under Mubarak. That opens the door for an Islamist president.
But Islamists come in many flavors, with different understandings of the meaning of pluralism and democracy. The Muslim Brotherhood, which advocates a gradual path toward Islamic rule, had been favored, having won 47 percent of the seats in parliamentary elections.
Some analysts compare their FJP (Freedom and Justice Party) to the Turkish ruling party, which has Islamic roots. But when Turkish Prime Minister Reccep Tayip Erdogan visited Cairo, and promoted the concept of a secular state with religious values, Brotherhood leaders publicly rejected this out of hand.
The FJP's most charismatic candidate was disqualified for technical reasons, and the popularity of the fallback candidate, the more bland Mohammed Morsi, seems to be sinking. The Brotherhood's vaunted organizational skills mean that Morsi can't be counted out, but Egyptian analysts are downplaying his chances.
That has pushed the other TV debater, Aboul Fotouh, into the position of Islamist front-runner. He is considered a "moderate" Islamist, having been kicked out of the Muslim Brotherhood last year. Some liberals have endorsed him; so has the ultraconservative Salafist al-Nour Party, which won 27 percent of the parliamentary seats; its own presidential candidate was also disqualified.
This leads Aboul Fotouh to offer himself as someone who can appeal across Egyptian society — from the traditionally religious countryside to the educated urbanites who value individual freedoms. When I interviewed him in November, in Cairo, he stressed that he endorsed full rights for women (his two daughters are doctors) and for Christians.
Last week, he insisted during the TV debate: "There's no contradiction between religion and citizenship, or religion and the constitution, or religion and the state."
Yet Moussa raised the point that resonates with more secular Egyptians, especially women, and with Coptic Christians: Can the Islamists be trusted? He alleged that Aboul Fotouh was "a Salafi with Salafis, a centrist with centrists, and he's a liberal with liberals."
The uncertainty about Islamist social — and economic — goals has led Egypt into a dangerous economic paralysis, as businessmen shift money out of Egypt and tourists stop coming. Nor is it clear how the Egyptian military — still the power behind the scenes — would react to an Islamist president.
Questions about "Whither political Islam?" also hover over the future of Syria. An uprising that was begun by the urban, secular Syrian middle class has morphed into a civil war under harsh military repression by the Assad regime.
As the violence continues, Salafi fighters gain more traction inside Syria, while Muslim Brotherhood members play a key role in the exile leadership outside the country. Assad's resistance to change guarantees that the conflict becomes more violent; the longer it continues, the more it will become a magnet for Muslim jihadis from other countries.
So, both in Cairo and Beirut, I will be looking at the likely prospects for the spread of political Islam, what that will mean, and whether any shift in U.S. policy can affect this. (Syrians in the opposition argue that the United States must help the opposition overthrow Assad sooner rather than later, if it doesn't want their country to deteriorate into an Iraq-like situation of chaos.)
This trip will be a far more grim voyage than my visits to Cairo during the heady days when the Egyptian revolution was young.
E-mail Trudy Rubin at email@example.com.