Military man has Egypt presidency in sights
Ahmed Shafik’s campaign to succeed Hosni Mubarak as president of Egypt did not include a stopover in Tahrir Square.
Birthplace of the uprising that toppled the autocratic leader and now the rallying point for an unfinished revolution, Tahrir has seethed with hostility to a man seen by many as a Mubarak offshoot who would reverse progress to democracy.
Shafik’s critics say influence wielded by Egypt’s interim army rulers got him as far as this weekend’s run-off against the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsy.
Suspicion that powerful forces are lining up behind the former air force commander deepened on Thursday when Egypt’s highest court overturned a law that would have barred him from the presidency and declared a parliamentary vote won by Islamists as void.
But there is real appeal to his law-and-order message for millions of Egyptians fed up with social and political turmoil since the collapse of Mubarak’s heavy-handed security apparatus in last year’s popular uprising.
There is also the fear, not least among Egypt’s 10 percent Christian minority, of rising Islamist power that Shafik has portrayed as a dangerous threat.
In his last appeals for votes before Friday’s close of official campaigning, Shafik pledged to “address chaos and return stability”, but also claimed the mantle of the uprising for himself, promising to bring its dividends to all Egyptians.
Yet Shafik, 70, remains a divisive figure whose repeated expressions of support for the uprising are met with indignation by the youthful revolutionaries who led it.
Many recall his offer as prime minister of “sweets and chocolates” for the protesters in Tahrir, proffered while they were mourning comrades shot dead by riot police.
After the first round of the presidential election last month, he tried to reach out again to his staunchest critics, saying: “Your revolution was stolen… I pledge to return its fruits to your hands.”
A state electoral committee said Shafik came second in last month’s opening round of Egypt’s first free presidential election. Turnout was 46 percent.
It said Morsy won 24.3 percent of the vote and Shafik 23.3 percent, knocking more moderate candidates out of the race.
Many Shafik supporters come not from the political hotbed of Cairo and other cities, but from the countryside, where voter concerns about security and order tend to be strongest.
Successive attacks on his campaign offices drew defiance from Shafik that played up to his no-nonsense image.
“Do they think that by burning Shafik’s headquarters, they will burn Shafik? Forget it,” he told reporters early this month before evoking another campaign refrain – fear of the unknown.
“The Brotherhood represents the darkness and secrets and nobody knows who they are and what they do… I represent Egypt, all of Egypt,” he said.
Shafik, who favors open-necked shirts, stood alongside relatives of Mubarak’s two predecessors, including the wife of Anwar Sadat and daughter of Gamal Abdel Nasser, at an event on Wednesday, hinting at a continuity of power that a Morsy win would rupture.
He has vowed to uphold Sadat’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel, saying: “I object to Israel’s current actions, but I am a man who honors past agreements.”
He says he has the military and political experience to lead Egypt into a new democratic era, yet his links to Mubarak have polarized voters. He sees himself as slotting into Egypt’s 60-year-old tradition of drawing presidents from the military.
“You cannot suddenly bring a civilian man with no relation or knowledge of military life and make him president and supreme commander of the armed forces,” Shafik told Reuters earlier this year, saying he could ensure a “smooth transition”.
The military council that took over from Mubarak has promised to hand over to a new president by July, but the army is expected to wield political influence for years to come.
“Civilians may be in a hurry and they think that as soon as the new president is elected he will act freely of the military. No, this will not be the case,” Shafik declared.
But the idea of Shafik taking power angers many Egyptians who see him as a tool of the army and the Mubarak old guard who would roll back all the uprising’s fragile gains.
Protesters threw stones and shoes at him when he voted in Cairo last month. “The coward is here. The criminal is here!” they chanted. “Down with military rule!” Shafik was unhurt.
He makes no secret of his “good relations” with army chief Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, saying he consulted him before deciding whether to run.
Shafik has openly expressed his admiration for Mubarak, making no apologies for describing the former president as his role model, after his own father, in a 2010 newspaper interview.
“See what I said? And I will keep telling you this until the last day in my life, and for a reason: he had great courage,” Shafik told al-Hayat television when queried about the remark.
Mubarak named Shafik prime minister in a last-ditch attempt to placate protesters. A few days later the president stepped down. Shafik lasted another three weeks before he too resigned.
In a military career spanning four decades, Shafik served in wars with Israel and is credited with shooting down an Israeli aircraft in the 1973 war.
When he led the air force in the 1990s, he sought to modernize it with more advanced weapons. Some Egyptian officials say Washington, which gives Egypt $1.3 billion a year in military aid, opposed some plans because of Israeli objections.
As civil aviation minister from 2002 to 2011, he overhauled state airline EgyptAir and improved the country’s airports.
(Additional reporting by Shaimaa Fayed; Writing by Edmund Blair and Tom Pfeiffer; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)