Egypt ex-premier is presidential candidate of choice for the rich

Ahmed Shafik is wealthy Egyptians' grudging candidate of choice for president. The affluent class sees him as a reassuring link to a law-and-order era.
(Khaled Elfiqi / European Pressphoto Agency)

CAIRO — He is the one they believe will protect them. From radical Islamists and surging crime. From those pesky revolutionaries with their endless chants and taste for turmoil.

Nervousness lingers over the gardened villas of Heliopolis, the Cairo neighborhood where hope for a return to order rests with Ahmed Shafik, a former fighter pilot, the last prime minister of the Hosni Mubarak era, and now one of two remaining candidates for president in a race that has riveted an Arab world in upheaval.

The brusque Shafik with his comb-over white hair is all that stands between the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi and the leadership of this divided nation. That makes him the grudging candidate of choice among the well-to-do in Heliopolis, where amid the lattes and tinkling jewelry there is a weariness with the unrest and economic uncertainty that have gripped Egypt since Mubarak’s fall.

“He will bring back sanity to the country,” Mohamed Abdelaziz, whose fabric shop has lost 40% of its business since last year, said of Shafik. “Egypt will have a better image to the outside world and shoppers will come back to these streets and tourists will return. Those with money don’t want to spend it now because they don’t know what will happen tomorrow.”

Shafik speaks to anxieties felt by Coptic Christians, urbane professionals and others at the top end of Egyptian society. His central theme is that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, which controls nearly 50% of the parliament, espouse an extremist Islam that would tilt the country toward the “dark ages.” Shafik has also pledged a crackdown on street protests and crime fueled by weapons smuggled from Libya and Sudan.

The fact that he served, even for a short time, as Mubarak’s prime minister infuriates liberals, but across much of moneyed Heliopolis he is a reassuring link to a law-and-order era for an affluent class that sent its children to foreign schools, vacationed in Europe and avoided both conservative Islam and Mubarak’s machine politics. The upwardly mobile weren’t devoted to Mubarak, but he allowed them their baubles and they seldom sought to undo him.

Morsi has portrayed Shafik as a Mubarak clone enamored of the nation’s military rulers more than of democratic ideals. This strategy intensified after a judge this month sentenced Mubarak to life in prison — some Egyptians demanded the death penalty — and acquitted six top police commanders in the deaths of hundreds of protesters in last year’s uprising.

Neither Shafik nor Morsi exemplifies the spirit of that rebellion, leaving their campaigns struggling to broaden their appeal to the slight plurality of voters who supported liberal, socialist, secularist and moderate Islamic candidates in the first round of presidential balloting last month. A campaign to boycott the runoff on Saturday and Sunday has gained momentum.

“No one is giving us straight answers,” said Mohi Gamgoum, who runs a small grocery in Heliopolis. “Shafik speaks with arrogance toward the people.... Morsi is an Islamic radical.”

Shafik faces other challenges, including a constitutional court ruling anticipated just days before this week’s vote that could disqualify his candidacy and tip the country into dangerous disarray. Parliament recently passed a law banning top officials from the Mubarak era from running for president. The ruling military council endorsed it but the election commission brushed it aside. If the court upholds the law, it could scuttle the election and probably ignite street violence.

But few on the streets of Heliopolis, where Alexander the Great marched millenniums ago, want Shafik to disappear. Hours before Mubarak relinquished power last year, a crowd of shopkeepers and businessmen yelled epithets at protesters marching on the presidential palace here. It was an image that foreshadowed the vicious year to come: activists pushing for change and an old guard maneuvering to protect what it had accumulated.

Shafik became the choice to replace his toppled boss. A young pilot in the 1973 war against Israel, Shafik served in the air force under Mubarak’s command. He held several top military posts before he retired and was appointed the nation’s civil aviation minister. He was named prime minister in the final days of Mubarak’s rule, which included the deadly spectacle of men on camels and horseback storming peaceful protesters in Tahrir Square.

Shafik was forced to resign as prime minister the day after he was grilled on a television talk show by popular novelist Alaa Al Aswany in early March 2011. It was a rare moment: A top Egyptian official dressed down before a national audience. Agitated and quickly losing his composure, Shafik snapped at Al Aswany, saying, “Don’t put on that patriotism act. I’m more of a patriot than you are.”

Shafik has called the military the “guardian” of constitutional legitimacy. He speaks of a strong state and has threatened dissidents with execution. It is unclear where he stands on free markets or what vision he has to lift about 40% of the country’s population out of poverty. But his terse sentences, especially when directed at Morsi and the Brotherhood, leave little ambiguity.

“My history is clear and disclosed to everyone,” he said in a recent speech. “The history of their candidate is obscure. I represent stability. They represent chaos.”

Shafik will make “it like it was before the revolution; he’s a military man,” said Omar Ahmed, a lithe clerk in black slacks and a pressed white shirt, selling handbags and jewelry. “The revolution was good, but people who had nothing to do with it used it to create chaos.”

The women around the corner at Nadia Dobgy’s clothes boutique were less effusive.

“I am not voting for Shafik because I think he will fix anything. It’s not that I have hope in him, but he is the lesser of the evils and we have no other option,” said Camillia Wassef, a Coptic woman in her mid-50s.

Dobgy, a non-veiled Muslim, agreed. “I don’t trust his words. He will always be Mubarak’s man. But I’m against the idea of boycotting and I can’t give Morsi the chance to win.” She said that the Muslim Brotherhood has “ruined the image of Islam with their extremist views.”

Out the door and down the boulevard, a man snipped thorns and placed roses in silver pails; guards sat at the entrances of jewelry stores. Guns are proliferating, carjackings are on the rise and Cairo, even in this well-to-do neighborhood, much of it built decades ago with money sent home by Egyptian workers in the Persian Gulf, is perpetually on edge.

“Shafik is the right person at the right time,” said May Medhat, hurrying by in white pants and carrying a designer purse. “It’s a mess right now.”

The walls of the presidential palace stood in the near distance. Expensive cars slipped through traffic directed by policemen who earn no more than a few dollars a day. The country is strained, tenuously held together, and few expect anything different for a long while. Medhat adjusted her purse.

She predicted that if Shafik is elected “the country will be further polarized, but if the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power, I’m going to Canada.”

Special correspondent Reem Abdellatif in Cairo contributed to this report.