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Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak’s last prime minister, is the surprise contender in Egypt’s presidential race

Egyptian presidential hopeful Ahmed Shafik, written off by many as a contender because of his service as Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister, is enjoying renewed buzz around his candidacy, helped by favorable coverage on state TV, the results of a survey in a respected Cairo newspaper, and what appears to be growing disenchantment with his Islamist rivals.

The prospect of Shafik’s rise is unnerving to Egyptian revolutionaries, who see him as a holdover from the Mubarak era. But the possibility that Shafik could make it into the runoff reassures those dissatisfied by the presumed leaders, reform-minded Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh and former Arab League chief Amr Moussa.

Having survived an early disqualification - he was reinstated within 24 hours – as well as a high-profile corruption probe, Shafik is now working overtime to capitalize on what pundits describe as a surprise comeback. Polls open Wednesday in Egypt’s landmark election, and Shafik said his previously low-key campaign has switched strategies to “attack severely with no rest.” The survey by Cairo’s Al Masry Al Youm newspaper placed him No. 1 among the 13 candidates while early returns from overseas balloting released Friday put him in fourth

Unlike his opponents, who take pains to distance themselves from the former regime, Shafik unabashedly promises voters a return to the old order: a strong security state in which tourism flourished and the Islamists knew their place. At one point in an interview with McClatchy, Shafik sarcastically borrowed his detractors’ pejorative term “felool,” a reference to the remnants of Mubarak’s era, to describe himself and his rival Moussa.

The ruling military council hasn’t endorsed any of the approved contenders, but it’s evident from Shafik’s remarks and the conspicuous presence of sympathetic security forces at his campaign stops that he enjoys a cozy relationship with the generals he seeks to replace as ruler of Egypt. Perhaps that’s not a surprise, given that he is a retired general who once commanded the country’s air force.

“There was goodwill,” Shafik said of the way the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has handled governing since Mubarak resigned the presidency 15 months ago. “If the army had been looking to destroy the revolution, it could have done soThe actions of the council were moderate, and I give them the excuse that the situation was really, really difficult.”

Dressed in a Polo shirt and jeans, Shafik relaxed in his suite at an army-owned hotel before a rally late Thursday night in Aswan, a diverse southern city on the Nile that boasts fertile farmland and tourist attractions such as ancient temples and Nubian villages. Outside the hotel, Muslim Brotherhood supporters holding posters of the group’s candidate, Mohamed Morsi, massed to counteract the palpable excitement over Shafik’s attention to the long-neglected region.

Shafik credited his return to the headlines with public dissatisfaction over the performance of the Islamists, especially the powerful Brotherhood, which he says tried to “change everything” in doses that were too fast and too tough for ordinary Egyptians to swallow.

“They have money, they know how to reach the poor people, they pay a lot, and they do everything with no hesitation,” Shafik said. “Forget about religion or ethics – they just attack without caring about the expense.”

If he wins the presidency, Shafik said, he would provide a “strong hand in government” that would force the Islamists to “retreat a little bit” and abide by laws he wants applied to regulate demonstrations. Taking to the streets every time protesters don’t get their way, he said, was unacceptable.

Shafik dismissed the notion that the Islamists would be a thorn in the side of a leader who’s openly opposed to their vision for Egypt.

“I don’t see any difference. They were present before, and it wasn’t at all a problem for the system,” he said, ignoring the fact that the regime’s decades of persecution of Islamists and all other dissidents was a catalyst for Mubarak’s downfall in February 2011.

Four hours later, after nightfall, Aswan residents streamed into a huge tent that had been erected for Shafik’s rally in a rundown district. A motley crew of supporters filled the seats: farmers with their heads wrapped in the region’s signature white turbans, middle-class families snapping photos of themselves with his campaign posters, imposing police and military brass, and even some ultraconservative Salafists with long beards and cropped trousers.

“I was in the army, and I like what he stands for,” said Mohamed Mahmoud, 31, a nurse and former army medic. “If we’re going to judge everyone from the former regime, it won’t work. We have to give chances.”

Lest Shafik take his apparent resurgence for granted, however, a throng of protesters showed up to remind him that, for the revolutionary sector of Egyptian society, his candidacy represents a step backward on the road to democracy. Before Shafik even uttered a word, protesters and his supporters began fighting, hurling rocks and insults at one another in a sideshow that lasted throughout the rally.

The event was akin to watching a tennis match, with spectators craning their necks between Shafik on stage promising law and order, and the noisy brawl occurring just behind them. When the protesters’ chants of “corrupt!” threatened to drown out the candidate, the rally’s organizers cranked up the volume on the loudspeakers and started screaming into microphones, “The people want Ahmed Shafik!”

The melee spread into the audience after a detractor hurled his shoes at the candidate, who didn’t flinch as they sailed over his head. A volunteer from the local campaign office warned visiting reporters to leave in case shooting erupted. The ruckus continued for more than hour, with scuffles that sent audience members leaping from their chairs several times, though no gunfire was heard.

Shafik gamely stayed on message throughout the distractions, acknowledging the fighting only in passing as a “difference in opinion.” He also barely referenced the popular uprising that made his campaign possible, recognizing only “circumstances” that allowed him to stand before the people of Aswan as a potential successor to Mubarak.

“The revolution succeeded in one month,” he told them, “but what about a year and a half later?”

Special correspondent Omnia al Desoukie contributed.

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