CAIRO – Egypt’s former prime minister has less than two weeks to convince Egyptians that he is the only candidate who can guarantee Egypt’s future.
Ahmed Shafiq, the man ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak called his “third son,” is presenting himself as the face of stability and the defender of secular and civil rights. But he faces an uphill battle to shake off his close connection to the former regime and his military past.
As Mubarak’s last prime minister, Shafiq is deemed a “felool” (Arabic for remnant) for much of Egypt. Shortly after he was named as one of the candidates in the runoff, a small group of protesters attacked his campaign headquarters in Cairo. Discontent and fear of the former regime was only exacerbated when on Saturday, Mubarak received a life sentence but was exonerated of the more serious charges, while his sons and former security officials were acquitted of all charges. In response, protesters burned two of Shafiq’s campaign billboards in Tahrir Square.
Speaking from a five-star hotel on the outskirts of Cairo on Sunday, Shafiq emphasized that the historic trial and life sentences for Mubarak and his interior minister Habib el-Adly indicate that no one is above the law.
“Those rulings certainly disprove any claims that a presidential candidate can reproduce a ruling system that has ended,” Shafiq added, responding to fears he would revive the regime.
Instead, the former air force commander has promised to restore order that many Egyptians long for after over a year of political and economic instability.
Playing on the fears of secular liberals, women, and minority Christians, Shafiq labeled the Brotherhood as “sectarian,” “backwards,” and extremist “liars” bent on monopolizing power and restricting civil rights, particularly for women. He seemed to suggest that his opponent, Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood, would answer to a religious leader and create sectarian divisions.
“I represent a civil state, the Brotherhood represents a sectarian Brotherhood state. I represent moving forward, they represent going backwards,” Shafiq said. “I represent stability. The Muslim Brotherhood represents chaos.”
The former regime insider Shafiq went so far as to accuse the Brotherhood of actually being the hand-in-glove with the old regime, saying the Islamist party collaborated with it to guarantee themselves seats in the 2005 parliamentary elections.
But while many unhappy with the runoff options were planning to begrudgingly vote for Shafiq as a vote against the Islamist Brotherhood, Saturday’s weak verdicts against Mubarak and el-Adly — which will most likely be overturned on appeal due to the prosecution’s lack of evidence — have instead proven the strength of former regime and the culture of impunity of Egypt’s security apparatus.
Amr Yousef, an import business owner from Cairo, will no longer vote for Shafiq simply because he wants a civil state. “The verdicts prove police can still get away with anything,” he said.
But that doesn’t mean he will settle for Mursi, either. Having control of both legislative and executive powers would just signal to the Brotherhood that they are “untouchable,” Yousef believes, just like the old regime.
For his part, Mursi echoed the indignation of the verdict’s protesters on Saturday night before joining them in Tahrir Square, promising a retrial if he was elected. But his refusal to withdraw from the race and join a civilian presidential council to oversee a new constitution and elections with the former candidates, who together garnered more votes than either he or Shafiq did, has made some uneasy.
Revolutionary activist Merna Thomas, who is Coptic Christian, will also spoil her ballot, but not out of any “illogical” sectarian fear, which she called “state-sponsored fear-mongering”.
“It’s irrational to vote for a guy backed by the same regime that killed Copts before,” Thomas said, referring to Shafiq. “But since the revolution, the Brotherhood has also shown that their only priority is power.”
She says boycotting the elections and starting over with a civilian council is the right thing to do, but feels it is too late and there is not much consensus in Tahrir and the on the streets.
“I’ve become a discouraged protester,” Thomas said. “I’m scared to go to Tahrir and raise my hopes–only to have them dashed.”
Thomas believes that whatever the results of the presidential election, real change will come to Egypt only once there is deep institutional and legal reform.
“There’s no point participating in a sham democracy. The [Mubarak] verdict just reaffirms this.”