Egypt: Could a Pro-Military Candidate Become President Fair and Square?

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Tara Todras-Whitehill / MCT / Getty Images)

Egyptian presidential candidate Ahmed Shafik, center, shakes hands with a supporter during a campaign rally in the Upper Egypt city of Aswan, Thursday, May 17, 2012.

On a recent weeknight, just days ahead of Egypt's landmark presidential election, the garden behind Ahmed Shafik's campaign headquarters is the scene of a major shouting match. About 150 volunteers have pressed around a table behind the campaign's colonial-era villa, yelling their demands at one of Shafik's campaign organizers, Amr Hussein, who is standing on a table, sweating profusely, and yelling back at them. "This is the third time I've come here and I get nothing," one man shouts, demanding campaign posters. A woman is calling for a last minute campaign march in her Cairo neighborhood of Sayyeda Zeinab. Another is crying out for better organization. "This campaign is failing! Failing!" screams another man.

The tension inside Shafik's poorly organized campaign is high, but the controversy brewing around it is even higher. And that's the reason everyone is anxious. Shafik was once the commander of President Hosni Mubarak's Air Force. For nearly a decade, he served as Mubarak's civil aviation minister. And, briefly, as thousands of protesters poured into Cairo's Tahrir Square at the beginning of last year, demanding — and ultimately forcing — Mubarak's ouster, he was the dictator's last Prime Minister. Suffice it to say: in post-Mubarak Egypt, Ahmed Shafik as a candidate is facing a firestorm of opposition.

"I don't think he even pretends to be a pro-change or pro-revolution candidate," says Shadi Hamid, a political analyst at the Brookings Doha Center. And that's something that Shafik's critics agree on. They say Shafik is the ultimate felool — old regime — candidate (he was even temporarily disqualified from running), and they predict that if he wins, there will be blood. Already, shouting, stone-throwing, and even clashes have erupted between his supporters and opponents at several of Shafik's campaign events. The election, to be held Wednesday and Thursday of this week, will mark the first democratic selection of a leader in Egypt's history, and to those who supported last year's uprising to end Mubark's 30-year reign, Shafik represents everything they sought to overthrow.

And yet: Shafik isn't shy about this past. In fact, he flaunts it. His campaign pamphlet says little of his vision for the future, but tells Egyptians everything they need to know about a military past. He has promised to bring back pre-revolution security, and to do so with an iron fist. "Within five minutes, the armed forces gave an example of what they can do when they want to cleanse an area," he told TV presenter Wael Abrashi in an interview last week, promising to crack down on the frequent anti-military protests that he says block traffic and stifle productivity. He even downplayed the importance of the same democratic system he's hoping to compete in: "We saw what the elections brought us — a man who had plastic surgery on his nose and then claimed to have been beaten up," he said, referring to a scandal involving an Islamist member of Egypt's recently elected parliament. And what makes him so threatening just days ahead of the vote is this: he's popular — perhaps more so than anyone initially thought.

A few recent polls have placed Shafik in second or even first place out of 13 candidates, apparently indicating a last minute surge in popularity. (If no candidate captures more than 50% of the votes outright, the top two will proceed to a run-off vote in June. Analysts say a run-off is almost inevitable.) But the opinion polls also throw a spotlight on an uncomfortable reality for Egypt's revolutionaries 16 months after Mubarak's fall: not everyone wanted a revolution.

Many of Shafik's core supporters are military men, government bureaucrats, and former members of Mubarak's ruling party. They're the new silent majority — the so-called "couch party" — says one of his spokespeople, Menna Hashad. "The greatest percentage of Egypt's population didn't participate in the revolution," she says. "My family, for example, didn't participate in the revolution, or the polls, and they're voting for Ahmed Shafik."

Since Mubarak's fall, Egypt's economy has crumbled amid rising insecurity; and so the notion that Egypt needs another strongman to get it back on track is an oft-repeated rallying point for Shafik's supporters. Indeed, Shafik represents security to many Egyptians in a way that the other old regime candidate — and the widely assumed frontrunner — Amr Moussa (a former foreign minister), does not: he's decidedly military. "The people in the [Nile] delta and in Upper Egypt like the military men more than anyone else," says Mohamed, a campaign organizer who declines to give his last name because he's not a spokesperson, describing the rural areas to Cairo's north and south. "It's an Egyptian instinct," he adds.

Coming to terms with the country's military sympathies has been the crux of Egyptian politics since the uprising. A shadowy group of Mubarak's generals, known as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), has run the country since the strongman stepped down, but has faced growing opposition from Islamists, liberals, and other activists who have accused it of grossly mismanaging the political transition. The generals, for their part, have refused to endorse a presidential candidate, and have promised to hand power to a president as soon as one is elected. But they've also shown little interest in ceding control of the military's vast economic empire to a civilian government or in exposing themselves to the prospect of prosecution. (Activists and rights groups accuse the military of rampant abuses, including violent crackdowns on protesters, torture, and imprisonment of political activists). Still, if any candidate appears poised to maintain the military's interests, it's Ahmed Shafik.

For years, the state-sponsored press has painted the man (affectionately called "the Air Marshall" by his supporters) as a loyalist to all things military, and an enemy of business and privatization. When he gave up the uniform to become the minister of aviation, "He surrounded himself with military colleagues," according to an article published in Al-Ahram Weekly in February of last year. "Most of the people I deal with are from the military," said Mohamed, the campaign organizer.

Many of Shafik's supporters admit that they're yearning for the old order. And it's that overwhelming sentiment that his staffers seem to be banking on when they urge other supporters not to fret so much over poor organization. "People are going to vote for Ahmed Shafik because the Egyptian people know him," Ibrahim Manaa, another former Air Force officer, told the crowd of agitated volunteers swarming his desk at campaign headquarters. The car parades and posters aren't everything, he said, because with Shafik, Egyptians already know what they're getting. "If you really want to help," he told them, "Then the way you help is on the 23rd and 24th, you go and get your friends and relatives to vote for Ahmed Shafik."

It's true that at this point in the race, every candidate has established a niche, says Shadi Hamid at the Brookings Doha Center. "Amr Moussa is the 'Change but not too much change' candidate. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh is the Change and 'Let's transcend partisan divisions' candidate — the sort of Obama thing. Mohamed Morsy is the 'We vote the Muslim Brotherhood' candidate,'" he says. "And Ahmed Shafik — he's the 'Nostalgia for the old order candidate.'"

But if regime nostalgia is one factor, so too is Islamist backlash. "I like him for one reason only: I want someone to face off against the Muslim Brotherhood," says Rageb Abdel Waris, who works in military production. Another Shafik supporter, a retired army officer named Awad Ahmed Mohamed, took it one step further: "He should put [the Islamists] back in prison because that's where they belong."

Indeed, Egypt's new, Islamist-dominated parliament has brought the reality of life after Mubarak into stark relief for anyone who liked things better the authoritarian way. The once banned Muslim Brotherhood has emerged as the country's most organized political party, and it's running its own candidate for the presidency, Mohamed Morsy. Aboul Futouh, an ex-member of the group, is one of the prime frontrunners, and has already won in the preliminary tally of absentee ballots. A win by either candidate is likely to take Egypt in a far more conservative direction, particularly as the country drafts a new constitution.

Analysts and electoral observers say that Shafik's supporters may have every reason to be anxious. Despite the recent polls, a Shafik win would be presumed fraudulent, Hamid says — and that's a risk the military is unlikely to take. International monitors say that rigging the vote would also be difficult in a system that now allows for independent observers and representatives for the different candidates at each polling station. Then again, Egypt's post-Mubarak presidential race has so far — unlike every presidential race before it — allowed plenty of room for surprises. With reporting by Sharaf al-Hourani/ Cairo