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Shafiq gains support in Egypt despite Mubarak link

A fear of Islamist domination is motivating many Egyptians forced to choose between extremes.

People take part in a protest against candidate Ahmed Shafiq, ousted president Hosni Mubarak's final prime minister, outside Egypt's parliament in Cairo.
People take part in a protest against candidate Ahmed Shafiq, ousted president Hosni Mubarak's final prime minister, outside Egypt's parliament in Cairo.

CAIRO // Many activists and other Egyptians have little in common with Ahmed Shafiq's ideology - but such is the nature of the new Egypt that they will cast their votes for him in this weekend's run-off elections.

While Mr Shafiq, 70, is seen by many as representing the worst of the Mubarak era, he has drawn support because he could be a bulwark against Islamist domination of the government.

In addition, his pro-business image has attracted voters who see him as a welcome antidote to Egypt's economic woes.

Mr Shafiq, a former air force commander and ex-president Hosni Mubarak's final prime minister, and Mohammed Morsi, 60, a prominent Muslim Brotherhood official, are polarising presidential candidates for the people of Egypt.

Two days before the two-day vote for the Egyptian presidency begins on Saturday, the race is coming down to who voters fear most.

"The run-off, to a great extent, will be a vote that is for the less evil choice," said Mazen Hassan, a lecturer at Cairo University.

Hamdeen Sabahi and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, the self-proclaimed revolutionary candidates who did not make it past the first round, have spoken out against Mr Shafiq but have found it difficult to throw their weight behind Mr Morsi. Aboul Fotouh's campaign only finally endorsed the Brotherhood candidate this week.

For some, the worry of an Islamist monopoly on power - the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party controls the parliament - is enough to persuade them to back a candidate with strong ties to the Mubarak regime, less than a year and a half after Egyptians fought to depose it. Brotherhood control of both the presidency and parliament bears echoes of the former regime's one-party rule, many say.

Mina Thabet, a founding member of the Maspero Youth Union, a revolutionary Coptic group, and the Egyptian Coalition of Minorities, a minority rights group, did not plan to vote for either candidate until this week, when he decided Mr Shafiq poses the lesser threat.

"He's against the revolution but not in the way the Muslim Brotherhood is," said Mr Thabet, 23, a Coptic Christian engineering student.

Mr Thabet is worried that the Brotherhood has its sights set on establishing Egypt as part of a larger Islamic caliphate across the region, adding that he does not know any Christians who will vote for Mr Morsi. Copts account for about one in 10 of Egypt's 85 million population.

"If I put this man in the president's chair," he said, referring to Mr Morsi, "it's like putting the supreme guide [of the Brotherhood] and the whole organisation of the Muslim Brotherhood in the president's chair."

"We know he's awful but if you vote for him, you prevent this other guy from taking over, which would be horrible," said Hani Shukrallah, editor-in-chief of the state-owned, English-language Ahram Online news site, of the dilemma facing voters. "There is a panic effect, in a sense."

Mr Shafiq's strength is rooted in the Nile Delta region, where the candidate has tapped into a strong patronage network of former politicians and businessmen connected to the Mubarak regime, analysts said.

The former civil-aviation minister also enjoys the support of many members of the military and security establishments, they said.

Many Egyptians say that they wish the uprising had never happened, particularly affluent businessmen, workers in the tourism industry and others who feel that they have been adversely affected by the continuing political turmoil and economic downturn.

For them, Mr Shafiq and his pro-business approach would improve the economy and halt what many perceive as a rise in crime. Some fear a win by Mr Morsi would make the economic situation worse.

"If the Muslim Brotherhood comes into power, they'll say Egypt is an Islamic state and end tourism, drinking alcohol and going in the sea in whatever clothing you want," said Tarek Kamaty, 39, as he sat among papyrus paper in his Cairo souvenir shop. "I must choose Ahmed Shafiq because if you chose Morsi, then the state - the president and parliament - will be ruled by the Brotherhood."

But the fact that so many people have aligned themselves with Mr Shafiq does not necessarily mean they long for Mubarak's return to power, according to Gamal Abdel-Gawad Soltan, an associate professor in the political science department of the American University in Cairo.

"The majority of Egyptians are supportive of the revolution. They are for the change that happened," said Dr Soltan. "But on the other hand, they want to restore stability and bring politics into the institutions, rather than the street revolutionary politics that we see around."

For some Egyptians, the decision between the Brotherhood and a former regime figure is unacceptable. They plan to either boycott the vote or void their ballots, too torn to choose between a pair of candidates they hate.

But Passant Adel, 25, a marketing coordinator at a business park, said her dislike of the Brotherhood trumps her friends' calls to skip the vote. Her father owns a travel agency and she fears tourism could suffer under Mr Morsi.

"If you are boycotting the election and you don't want to vote for anyone," she said, "you are giving a greater chance for the Muslim Brotherhood to jump over the elections and win."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae