CAIRO — Ahmed Shafik said he never regretted calling former President Hosni Mubarak “a role model.”
Times Topic: Egypt News — Presidential Elections, May 2012
A protest in Cairo on Sunday against Mr. Shafik, who suggested he would use executions and brutal force to restore order within a month and accused Islamists of harboring secret militias.
At the lunch of elite businessmen held this month by the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt, an umbrella group for multinationals and those who work with them, the crowd erupted in applause.
It was a vivid demonstration of the unexpected surge of support that Mr. Shafik, a former air force general and Mr. Mubarak’s last prime minister, hopes will help him win a mid-June presidential runoff against Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. A victory would make him Egypt’s first freely elected president, setting the template for the country’s post-Mubarak future.
Mr. Shafik, 70, and Mr. Morsi, 60, offer a rematch of the struggle that has driven Egyptian politics for six decades, between secular authoritarians and Islamists who promise a novel experiment in religious democracy.
Mr. Shafik’s bid for the presidency turns on the fears of an Islamist takeover on one hand and of pervasive lawlessness on the other. These fears are the glue that hold together his secular-conservative coalition of elite businessmen, former military officers, members of Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority and cosmopolitans who worry that Islamist electoral victories will mean a more pious and intolerant culture.
These fears were much in evidence at the American Chamber event. The well-heeled audience cheered as Mr. Shafik suggested that he would use executions and brutal force to restore order within a month, repeatedly mocked the Islamist-led Parliament and accused, against all evidence, the Islamists of harboring hidden militias to use in a civil war.
“The problem with security is that we don’t want security because we want to be the only ones with militias,” Mr. Shafik said, referring clearly, if obliquely, to the Islamists. “Because we want to turn Egypt into a Lebanon.”
But there was hope, he added: “The Egyptian people, contrary to the accusations, are obedient.”
Mr. Shafik’s chances in the runoff are hard to assess because of the popularity of Islamist politics here and the Brotherhood’s unrivaled political machine. The Brotherhood and other Islamists won three-quarters of the parliamentary vote, but roughly split the first round of presidential voting with more secular candidates. Mr. Morsi and Mr. Shafik each received only about a quarter of the vote, with a narrow majority of voters backing candidates sharply critical of both the Brotherhood and former Mubarak officials.
It is too soon to guess how those voters will break. And by Sunday the three runners-up had all filed various legal challenges to the results with the unpredictable presidential election commission of top judges. Its ruling, which is final, is expected by Tuesday.
Fighting off other Islamists during the campaign, the Brotherhood reverted to an older style of religious politics, describing its program as a distillation of Islam and calling for Islamic law. But since the revolution, the Brotherhood has also sought to reassure Egyptians that it supports equal citizenship for all, including women and Christians, and does not plan to impose legal restrictions on personal behavior or expression. At Christmas, Brotherhood leaders visited churches while younger members stood guard outside.
In a television appearance on Saturday night, Mr. Morsi tried to woo Egypt’s Christian minority, which is about 10 percent of the population. “Egypt belongs to all,” he said, implicitly blaming Mr. Shafik and the Mubarak government for their grievances. “Who killed them in protests? Who prevented them from building churches? The old regime, not us.”
Mr. Morsi sent Khairat el-Shater, the Brotherhood’s dominant strategist and a business tycoon, to represent the Brotherhood at another American Chamber lunch. Mr. Shater gave a speech so committed to promoting free markets, foreign investment and other business interests that some in the Chamber said it was as if he was reading their own talking points.
But the audience was too afraid of the Islamists’ potential social agenda to give them any credit, two people who were present said.
In the runoff, Mr. Shafik has sought to seize the mantle of the “glorious revolution.” After the applause for his admiration of Mr. Mubarak at the American Chamber lunch, Mr. Shafik specified that what he admired was his friend’s ability to keep his personal feelings out of his official decisions.
But critics say they feel like the revolution never happened. For a decade before Mr. Mubarak’s ouster, Mr. Shafik had been acclaimed as a potential inside candidate to succeed him, with the blessing of the elite within Egypt’s military-backed autocracy.
Mr. Shafik’s swearing-in as prime minister in January last year was considered a sop to the military and the old guard, not the protesters, to shore up Mr. Mubarak’s support. Mr. Shafik was forced to resign a month later after a confrontation on a talk show, and since then such blowups have become a trademark.
“I am not going to talk about that,” he snapped recently at an Al Jazeera interviewer, when she pressed him to clarify his ambiguous views on the political power of the military. Only a military man like him could “prevent any early friction,” Mr. Shafik continued, raising his voice and leaning forward from the edge of his chair. “I am just guaranteeing the success of the experience!”
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In Mr. Shafik’s short platform, he calls for the military to play a continuing political role as “the guardian of the constitutional legitimacy.” He calls the military’s economic activities — which include a far-flung commercial empire with little military application — “a strategic necessity.” And he seems to endorse continuing Egypt’s much hated, 30-year-old “emergency law” allowing extrajudicial detention. In cases of emergency, his platform suggests, the application of such measures should still be exempt from parliamentary review.
On the economy, Mr. Shafik has said he opposes progressive income taxes and has talked about big development projects. As a former aviation minister in charge of airports and the state airline, he was known for his “iron fist,” especially on labor demands.
But he has offered little indication of support for free enterprise or markets. As aviation minister, he said that improving aviation through private carriers at the expense of the state-run airline would be counterproductive.
He, like other Mubarak associates, also faces lingering allegations of corruption. On Sunday, a Cairo court sentenced Zakaria Azmi, one of Mr. Mubarak’s closest aides, to seven years in prison and a $6 million fine for corruption.
Mr. Shafik has sometimes pledged to name a Christian woman his vice president. But at the American Chamber lunch he appeared uncertain. “I wish I could find a Christian lady who’s highly qualified,” he said.
Instead, he declined to rule out naming Mr. Mubarak’s former vice president and feared spy chief, Omar Suleiman. “If it was possible for the expertise of Omar Suleiman to be used in any place, why not use it?” he said, to big applause.
He mocked the activists who have vowed to take to the streets for a “second revolution” if Mr. Shafik or Mr. Suleiman becomes president. “It is not like we have parents who say, ‘This is allowed or forbidden, if this person runs then the country will be on fire, or if this person works we will go to the streets in arms,’ ” he said.
He added: “The state has to be very strong. The strongest thing should be the state.”