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Originally published June 14, 2012 at 7:53 PM | Page modified June 14, 2012 at 10:04 PM

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Former Egyptian PM the safe pick

Many Egyptians who participated in the revolution oppose the former military man, but he's the safe choice for the wealthy, business owners and the secular-minded.

Los Angeles Times

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CAIRO, Egypt —

He is the one they believe will protect them. From radical Islamists and surging crime. From pesky revolutionaries with 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 Shafiq, 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 Shafiq, with his comb-over white hair, is all that stands between Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed 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," said Mohamed Abdelaziz, whose fabric shop has lost 40 percent of its business since last year. "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."

Shafiq 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 espouse an extremist Islam that would tilt the country toward the "dark ages." Shafiq also pledges a crackdown on street protests and crime fueled by weapons smuggled from Libya and Sudan.

The fact that he served, even briefly, 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 Shafiq as a Mubarak clone enamored of the 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 Shafiq 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 Saturday and Sunday has gained momentum.

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

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

Shafiq became the choice to replace his toppled boss. A young pilot in the 1973 war against Israel, Shafiq 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.

Shafiq 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, Shafiq snapped at Al-Aswany, saying, "Don't put on that patriotism act. I'm more of a patriot than you are."

Shafiq 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 percent 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."

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