At a pharmacy in Cairo's once prestigious Garden City, neighboring Tahrir Square, three men are engaged in fierce discussion about Egypt's first live television presidential debates.
"[Presidential candidate] Amr Moussa appeared more experienced, more aware of the issues," says the pharmacist.
"I wasn't impressed with either of the two candidates. I thought Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh would do better," says one of the patrons. He said he would vote for a different candidate.
The third man cautioned patience.
"Let's wait to hear what the other candidates say before we finally decide," he advises.
At first glance, it may appear unprecedented that average Egyptians are commenting on such a remarkable experiment in democracy and media freedoms.
On May 10, former Foreign Minister and Arab League chief Moussa went head to head with former Muslim Brotherhood senior member Aboul Fotouh.
Moderated by talk show hosts from independent networks Dream 2 and ONTV, the debate lasted more than three hours and soon developed into a side show of traded barbs and accusations.
Millions of Egyptians who watched at home, at neighborhood cafes, and online were spellbound.
They had never seen their usually reserved politicians with gloves off in a no holds barred verbal tussle.
"I watched the whole debate until 2am and I changed my vote by the end," said Ibrahim Ali, a bus driver. There were equally charged discussions on Twitter and other social media.
Independent media's post-Mubarak rise
But beyond the excitement and history-making, the live debates highlight the rising power of independent media in post-Mubarak Egypt.
In joining forces to organise the live debates, independent networks ONTV, ONLive, Dream, Dream 2 (and independent dailies Shorouk and AlMasry AlYoum) dealt a deadly blow to State media by siphoning their once traditional audience.
Since the January 25 popular uprising which unseated President Hosni Mubarak and his regime, State media have steadily, if not systematically, lost credibility and viewership.
A few days before Mubarak transferred power to the military, State-owned newspapers attempted to ride the wave of public fury by publishing exposes and investigative pieces uncovering wrongdoing by former regime cronies. State TV, which at first ignored the millions of protesters in Tahrir and labeled them foreign agents now switched to calling them loyal revolutionaries against the backdrop of popular nationalistic songs from the 1960s and 70s.
Chief editors and managers appointed by the former regime were fired and replaced; for a while, it appeared that State media were on the cusp of significant reform.
But the illusion of reform was shattered when State TV responded to the October 2011 Maspiro protests by calling for "decent Egyptian" to protect the military from Coptic demonstrators.
"State media died in January, 2011," says Naila Hamdy, Assistant Professor of Journalism at the American University in Cairo.
"Despite attempts to gain credibility amongst the people of Egypt, I think they are failing to do so."
State media tried to compensate with one-on-one interviews with presidential candidates and round-table discussions with leading politicians and thinkers.
But they suffered another blow during the Abbasiya clashes in early May. As news anchors interviewed analysts who lauded the conduct of the military forces in decisively dealing with "thugs" attacking civilian protesters, State TV footage of the army repeatedly beating and humiliating demonstrators played in an endless loop for about 45 minutes. And then it abruptly stopped with a presenter apologising for technical difficulties.
It was an embarrassing indictment of State media's bias.
State media struggling to compete
It's been a difficult year-and-a-half for State media; these networks and newspapers suddenly finds themselves in the middle of an increasingly cutthroat industry.
Since the populist uprising, at least a dozen new independent networks have taken advantage of the military's often inconsistent policy of licensing new satellite channels, and offered alternatives to the public.
These include networks that allege to be the "voice of the revolution", those that espouse libertarian views, as well as Islamist channels that now have a platform to lambaste secularism and former regime politicians.
"With the launch of several new private Egyptian satellite stations and the revival of some of the existing pre-revolution ones, there’s been a nightly war over audiences," says Hamdy.
State media responded by making changes to content and presentation, even calling on experienced anchors who have not been seen on the screen in more than a decade to interview presidential candidates.
It hasn't worked.
"All these efforts resulted in limited improvement and just a face-lift for an old bureaucratic institution that failed [to] fulfill its tasked mission and that is education, enlightenment, awareness and [offering] reliable news," said blogger and news analyst Hany Ghoraba.
"Unfortunately none of the above was fulfilled and the Egyptian state TV can’t get out of the propaganda machine job that it willingly accepted decades ago," he wrote in his online article The Show Must Go On: Egyptian Media, Culprit or Victim.
Abdel-Rahman Hussein, a journalist who works for Egypt Independent, one of the newspapers to emerge since Mubarak's ouster, believes that state media has performed pretty much in the same ethos as it did under the former regime, kowtowing to power.
"It's just that the power has changed hands from Mubarak to the military," he says.
"The only change has been paying lip service to impartiality, for example showing footage from a Tahrir Square protest but often skewing the perception of protesters through commentary."
Is independent media really free?
Independent media has been experimenting with different formats, content and even discussing ethics and media responsibility, perhaps for the first time. The nascent media freedoms are uncharted areas for many of the new networks and mistakes are being made. Often, there are accusations of network bias and lack of professional training.
There have also been questions raised about the ownership of independent media and the roles investors play in determining output.
Independent network Al Hayat, for example, is owned by prominent Wafd party leader Sayed El-Badawi while Dream TV, one of the sponsors of the live debates, is owned by powerful business tycoon Ahmed Bahgat.
The biggest success story, however, is the rise in popularity of ONTV and ONTVLive, both owned by one of the richest men in Egypt, telecom tycoon Naguib Sawiris. The two networks feature some of the most popular talk shows in Egyptian broadcasting.
For the greater part, Sawiris has refrained from intervening in editorial planning and output, but he has used his networks as platforms to deliver his opinions to the public. He has also used the networks to broadcast ads for the political group he helped establish - Free Egyptians Party.
But Ahmed Aboul Enein, a recently graduated journalist who has extensively researched media ownership and independence in Egypt, says a network's bias is equally reflected in what it chooses not to cover.
He says that many of the independent TV media have shown little to no interest in providing coverage of the dozens of labor strikes and demonstrations which have dramatically increased since the populist uprising.
"The pattern of wealthy capitalist men owning almost all of Egypt’s independent media leads to them adopting an economically bourgeoisie agenda where labor strikes are discouraged and portrayed as destructive and anti-stability," he says.
"The systematic ignoring of these labor movements .... clearly shows that these media outlets adopt a very pro-capitalist and corporate agenda," Aboul Enein says.
Hussein points to rather intrusive editorial gate-keeping as a threat to full media independence.
"Self-censorship occurs often as media owners seek to protect their interests ... There is also self-censorship at the editorial level, as the editors know full well what the stance of their owners might be," he says.
Hussein urges full editorial independence.