Egyptians face a stark choice as they vote later this month in a run-off election for their first-ever freely elected national leader. While a narrow majority of voters cast ballots for more moderate options, the two biggest vote-getters offer radically different visions for Egypt's future and that of the whole Middle East
Ahmed Shafik's candidacy for president has been controversial from the beginning. At first, he was disqualified for having served as a cabinet minister and briefly as prime minister, in the waning days of the Mubarak regime. The disqualification was overturned on appeal.
Then, during the campaign, he was threatened with violence on at least two occasions and forced to cancel parts of his tour. On voting day, people threw shoes at him after he cast his own ballot.
Most recently, on Monday, his campaign headquarters in Cairo was set ablaze.
However, Major-General (retired) Shafik wears it all as a badge of honour. The former fighter pilot and one-time chief of Egypt's air force warns those who confront him and threaten violence in the streets that, once elected, he'll restore security "within six hours" of taking office.
"How can some 200,000 demonstrators … topple someone who has been elected by millions?" he asked on recent television talk show. He vowed to cut electricity to Tahrir Square should demonstrations be held there to denounce his victory.
Many Egyptians welcome such a no-nonsense approach, particularly in the countryside where voter concerns about security and order are strongest. And they believe he can carry out his promises. He is a military man through and through.
Born in Cairo in 1941, Gen. Shafik graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1961. He later completed a master's degree in military sciences and a PhD in military strategy.
He fought in three wars, including the 1973 Arab-Israeli war in which he was a senior fighter pilot. And he claims to have shot down two Israeli fighter jets in the 1969-70 War of Attrition with Israel.
Indeed, Gen. Shafik has the swagger of a fighter pilot. He's most comfortable in his trademark blue sweater over an open-neck shirt, and of all the candidates looks the most presidential.
Gen. Shafik served as air force chief from 1996 to 2001, when he was appointed civil aviation minister. He was seen by many as a natural successor to president Hosni Mubarak, a man Gen. Shafik proudly describes as a role model.
Despite such loyalty, however, the general insists he accepts the outcome of last year's revolution.
"I pledge now, to all Egyptians, we shall start a new era. There is no going back," he said last week. "We must accept the results."
"Your revolution," he told youths who spearheaded the uprisings, "has been hijacked [by the Islamists]and I am committed to bringing [it]back."
Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 per cent of the population, view Gen. Shafik as the one who would enforce the laws and prevent discrimination against them, and they overwhelmingly voted for him in the first round of the election.
At a public rally in Alexandria, Gen. Shafik even said that if he finds a Christian woman who is competent enough, he would appoint her vice-president.
He thinks it is important that Egypt move away from military influence gradually, and not rush into civilian life. He sees himself as providing a "smooth transition."
"You cannot suddenly bring a civilian man with no relation or knowledge of military life and make him president and supreme commander of the armed forces," Gen. Shafik said earlier this year.
A Western diplomat described Gen. Shafik last year (before his appointment as prime minister), as "a man to watch." The aviation minister, the diplomat said, was "very impressive" in how he improved Egypt Air and oversaw construction of an excellent new terminal at Cairo airport.
"He also appears not to be tainted by corruption," the diplomat said, unlike so many of the old regime now in prison or facing charges.
If Shafik wins.
Under Ahmed Shafik, Egypt's military can be expected to wield political influence for years to come. "Civilians may be in a hurry and they think that as soon as the new president is elected he will act freely of the military. No, this will not be the case," Gen. Shafik said recently.
However, the youthful revolutionaries who led last year's uprising can be counted on to take to the streets again. They still have not forgiven him for treating them when he was prime minister as, essentially, crybabies. (At one tense moment in the battle of Tahrir Square, he sarcastically offered to take them sweets if they would stop whining.)
Taken together, confrontation is likely, though the Muslim Brotherhood may stay out of it, content with control of parliament and the constitutional assembly.