Haunted by his past, Egypt presidential candidate Shafiq plays defensively

Sherif Tarek , Saturday 19 May 2012

For months, presidential hopeful Ahmed Shafiq and his supporters have been busy defending his candidature against accusations related to his former posts under Mubarak, at the expense of positive campaigning

An archive photo of the ousted President Hosni Mubarak and the current Presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq (Photo: Reuters)

A prominent deposed regime figure who came through the ranks of the under-fire Egyptian military establishment, presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq has for months been obliged, along with his campaigners, to defend himself against persistent attacks from the revolutionary camp, and more recently the Islamist-dominated parliament too.

Shafiq is not the only finalist in the presidential race from the former regime. Amr Moussa is an ex-Mubarak foreign minister (1991 - 2001) and is also seeking the top position. Revolutionaries and MPs are laying more heavily into Shafiq because he worked within the Mubarak regime during the last ten years of his reign, seen as the most corrupt years. Moussa, on the other hand, had been reshuffled before those despised times because he had a dispute with the regime.

Shafiq, therefore, instead of putting on a positive, strong campaign, has been scrambling to defend himself.

Civil aviation minister from 2002 to 2011, Shafiq earlier held a host of high-profile governmental and military positions. In the days leading to the demise of president Hosni Mubarak, Shafiq is understood to have been appointed premier in an effort to abort last year's uprising – to no avail.

During his brief tenure as interim premier, the 70-year-old faced a baptism of fire over his unequivocal support for Mubarak and arguably offensive posture towards the uprising, having for instance offered on state TV – patronisingly, his detractors feel – to send sweets to protesters staging a sit-in at Tahrir Square.

Many also blamed him for the infamous Battle of the Camel, schemed by Mubarak's oligarchs in a bid to end the revolt. Shafiq was never accused of involvement in the incident, which saw hundreds in Tahrir killed and injured with various weapons on 2 February 2011, but he was often criticised for playing it down while heading the government and afterwards.

Shortly after Mubarak's ouster, Shafiq was relieved of his duties and all but vanished from the political scene. His announcement in December 2011 of his intention to run for president, however, marked his return on the public arena and also the re-awakening of hostility between him and revolutionary forces, who categorically refuse to see an ex-Mubarak strongman become the next president.

"When the prime minister of Mubarak, who was brought down by the revolution, reveals his intent to run for the presidency, then the former regime is still alive," opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei, who was a presidential hopeful himself at the time, said through his Twitter account after Shafiq unveiled his decision to take part in the presidential elections. ElBaradei's stance was adopted by many anti-Mubarak Egyptians.

Shafiq's controversial statements

As the last Mubarak premier, Shafiq – who according to several independent polls is among the presidential race frontrunners – has been, along with his campaigners, keen to strike back at his numerous critics. But his readiness to argue has not tired revolutionaries from lambasting him on every possible occasion, including several recent mass protests in Tahrir.

Not only has the former air force commander's loyalty to Mubarak put him in hot water, but so has the fact that he – like the ousted president – is a product of the Egyptian army, which in the eye of many has turned from the "protector of the revolution" to a "repressive tool." The trying of civilians in military courts and other strong-fisted measures against protesters by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) are widely seen as draconian.

Amid widespread rumours that the SCAF is underhandedly endorsing him (though it is the same body that abruptly ended his premiership in response to public demands in the uprising's aftermath), Shafiq has done little to either ditch his image as a military-backed presidential contender or to win over the revolutionary side.

Quite a few of his recent controversial statements made on television have been widely circulated on social media sites, Twitter and Facebook, by his critics to prove that Shafiq – as president – would ensure the extension of Mubarak's 30-year autocracy, which oppressed many freedoms and gave the military and police unfettered powers.

In one of the sensational statements that drew sour criticism, Shafiq said the army could swiftly evacuate Tahrir Square should the opposition stage another sit-in to oust him while in power.

Commenting during an ONTV programme on how he thinks Shafiq would deal with demonstrators, veteran opposition journalist, Ibrahim Issa, said mockingly, with a couple of whips in hand: "Whoever wants to be whipped to see law and order maintained should cast his vote for Shafiq."

Karim Salem, one of Shafiq's campaign spokesmen, believes the colonel general's detractors take his statements to the media out of context to defame him. He told Ahram Online: "It is like that statement, when it was rumoured that he said [during a TV interview] 'Unfortunately, the revolution has succeeded,' but what he meant was 'unfortunately, some people other than the revolutionaries benefited from the revolution.' If only people heard the full sentence," lamented the spokesperson.

"Again, about his opinion on protests, that the army can forcibly evacuate Tahrir Square, Shafiq stressed in the same interview that staging peaceful demonstrations is a right that every citizen is entitled to, but his critics omitted that part as well."

Legal attacks from parliament

Not only is Shafiq trying to fend off attacks in the ongoing media war, but he is also keeping his guard up to dodge legal volleys from parliament. Essam Sultan, the MP of the moderate Islamist Wasat Party, has emerged as his primary antagonist, who is keen to see the former combat pilot put out of the presidential competition.

To begin with, Sutlan was pushing along with other MPs for the implementation of the Disenfranchisement Law, which is supposed to prevent former regime members – especially those seen as participating in arguably the most corrupt last decade of the Mubarak rule – from holding office or contaminating Egypt's political rebirth.

The People's Assembly (parliament's lower house dominated by over 70 per cent Islamists, long persecuted under Mubarak) endorsed last month the Disenfranchisement Law that was later ratified by the ruling junta. The Supreme Presidential Elections Commission (SPEC), consequently, disqualified Shafiq from the elections.

The tenacious presidential hopeful, nonetheless, returned to the race after filing an appeal to the commission against its own decision, in which he questioned the constitutionality of the Disenfranchisement Law.

Upon upholding Shafiq's appeal, the SPEC referred the Disenfranchisement Law to the Supreme Constitutional Court in order for the latter to decide on the constitutionality of the legislation. It is noteworthy that the SPEC is made up of judges and is headed by Farouk Sultan, who is also the chairman of the Supreme Constitutional Court.

Another Shafiq foe, lawyer Shehata Mohamed, lodged a counter-appeal against the SPEC referral of the law to the Supreme Constitutional Court, and the State Council's Administrative Court ruled in his favour.

At this point, after Mohamed's counter-appeal was upheld, it was assumed that Shafiq should once again be ineligible to participate in the presidential elections. However, the SPEC invoked their authorities as laid out in Article 28 of Constitutional Declaration of March 2011, which puts their decisions beyond the reach of judicial review, and kept him in the race.

Later in the quickly-developing saga, Sultan filed another lawsuit in the Supreme Administrative Court challenging not the decision to allow Shafiq to run, nor the sticky subject of a SCAF-appointed SPEC head questioning the constitutionality of the Disenfranchisement Law in his own Constitutional Court, but rather the technical issue of whether the SPEC has the authority to refer the law to the Supreme Constitutional Court.

The Supreme Administrative Court eventually suspended the State Council's ruling that halts the referral of the Disenfranchisement Law to the constitutional court, which is now poised to rule on the legislation's constitutionality. According to the Supreme Administrative Court's verdict, the SPEC does have the right to question the constitutionality of the Disenfranchisement Law in court.

Shafiq was still in the running, but despite his partial victory, he did not have enough time to catch his breath. Right after Shafiq seemed to have kept intact his eligibility to run for president, at least in the meantime, Sultan opened another front by accusing him of exploiting his position as head of the Young Air Force Officers' Association by selling thousands of acres of state land in Ismailiya, earmarked for the association, at reduced prices to Mubarak's sons, Alaa and Gamal, in the early 1990s.

In return, Shafiq held a news conference to deny the corruption allegations and also to hit back at Sultan. "First, he [Sultan] introduced the lame Disenfranchisement Law that was especially tailored for me," he said. "And after my appeal was accepted by the SPEC and I returned to the presidential race, he came up with fresh false claims about that land to hinder me."

In the 13 May parliamentary session, Sultan produced official documents, including a contract supposedly showing the transactions in question. For his part, parliament speaker Saad El-Katatni, who is also the Secretary General of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), referred the case to the public prosecution on the same day.

Wasting campaign time

Having been mired in a legal dispute to remain in the presidential race, and now trying to clear his name amid fresh corruption charges pressed eight days before the first round of polling, not to mention verbal jousts in the media, Shafiq complains that his electoral campaigning has been adversely affected.

"I am the only candidate who spent so much time replying to this repeated nonsense; whether slander, false accusations, baseless claims or rumours," Shafiq said in press release issued by his campaign headquarters – a luxurious villa in Cairo's Dokki district – 14 May.

"This is an organised smear campaign against me; it aims at practicing political extortion, distracting public opinion from the real serious issues of the elections, and keeping me from investing the available time in the campaigning period [which ends on 21 May, two days before voting in Egypt gets underway] to promote myself as a candidate."

Apart from Sultan, Shafiq went on to directly accuse the Brotherhood, whose political wing, the FJP, holds nearly half of the People's Assembly seats, of abusing their parliamentary authorities to rule him out of the presidential elections. "The source of this slander is that member of the People's Assembly [Sultan, a former member of the Brotherhood], or may I say: the assembly itself," he stated.

"My campaign said in a statement that the People's Assembly is deliberately trying to affect the results of the presidential elections; now everybody knows the truth, which the Brotherhood MPs are not even trying to conceal. This farce started when the assembly made time just to issue an unconstitutional law with the intention to eliminate me from the elections … A Brotherhood parliamentarian even wrote on his Facebook page that I would win the elections only over their dead bodies."

For decades under Mubarak, Islamist forces, including the Brotherhood, suffered relentless defamation and oppression, which greatly limited their political contribution and potential until the 2011 uprising broke out. For this reason, there is no love lost between Islamist entities, which are now on the forefront of the political landscape, and the remnants of the overthrown regime, such as Shafiq.

And apart from this unpleasant history, the Brotherhood is sparing no effort to support the presidential bid of Mohamed Morsi, the FJP chairman, who was the last contender to enter the presidential race, but is now regarded as one of the top candidates.

On how Shafiq's campaign has been operating under the immense pressure, spokesman Salem said: "Most of the time we are promoting the platform and ideologies of the colonel general, but of course we also have to deal with all the defamatory campaigns against him by revealing the truth.

"All of these rumours are groundless and were triggered with the intention of tarnishing his reputation or to waste our time. People behind these rumours are often those who do not have any political achievements and just want to hit the headlines; they do not really care about their credibility or image."

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