Ahmed Shafiq's nomination for the presidency of Egypt is an important opportunity to pull the country out of its current political impasse, not because he represents the January Revolution or the Egyptian people's hope for a democratic era, but because he embodies a positive development, albeit limited, in this regard. The past six years for the Egyptians have proven the difficulty of democratic transition, as evidenced by many examples, and proven the fact that it requires many elements that are currently not available. The Egyptian Armed Forces, the protector of the government, seems to be incapable of obeying any leadership outside of its confines, as it staged a coup against the elected civilian president after less than a year of his presidency.
As for the Egyptian opposition, it is living under difficult conditions, as it has experienced six decades of military rule and political oppression, and lacks partisan media and civil institutions. Meanwhile, the Egyptian people are suffering from a weakness in their ability to hold on to democracy and patience, and to bear the difficulties of democratic transitioning, due to the spread of poverty, a lack of awareness, and a lack of democratic political experience.
Furthermore, the region is experiencing a period of division and relentless war against the religious and democratic opposition forces, thus compounding the obstacles in the face of the rise of the political forces in the near future, especially since the current international system, led by US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, does not support the rise of such forces.
Given the current circumstances, the Egyptian revolution failed and the old regime returned in a much worse security form. The best alternative for now may be a political leadership, such as Ahmed Shafiq, who is affiliated with the same military institution. He could act as a transition between military rule and civilian rule, after spending over 15 years outside of the military institution, during which he served in civilian positions, including Minister of Aviation, at a time when Egypt witnessed a level of relative political openness during the final years of Hosni Mubarak's rule.
The fact that Shafiq comes from the military institution makes him less of a threat to it and more capable of winning its approval. He also has a better chance of having a real competition against Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in the next elections. He has strong support within the circles of the Mubarak regime's forces, as he was their favourite candidate in Egypt's only free presidential elections throughout its history, as over 12 million Egyptians voted for him in 2012.
Ahmed Shafiq may act as a lifesaver for the Mubarak regime forces, which do not fully trust Al-Sisi and do not know him well. He is new to them and represents a new generation of military leaders less politically experienced and less organically linked to the traditional centres of power within the Mubarak regime, such as the businessmen, municipal leaders and senior bureaucrats. Furthermore, Shafiq's civil experienced and his desire to win the elections would make him a candidate who is closer to the people and the various opposition forces compared to Al-Sisi, who came to power on the back of a tank. Furthermore, if he wins the presidential elections, Shafiq may seek to reduce the restrictions imposed on his opposition in hopes of beginning a new era and winning their support, at least in the beginning of his presidency.
Some revolutionary forces may reject Shafiq because he is a remnant of the Mubarak era, or because he does not adequately reflect the revolution and democracy. They may also reject him because these forces are linked to former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, his group and forces allied with him. However, unfortunately, the current circumstances deem these ideas as idealistic and costly for over two years, the revolutionary and opposition movement has been almost completely stalled. The opposition's greatest wish is the release of their imprisoned relatives, allowing them to return to the country, stopping the machine of killing, destruction and removing Egypt from its current circle of unfortunate regional and international alliances and policies.
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Shafiq's talk of the UAE's ban on him travelling may increase his stardom, as he is a former senior commander in the Egyptian Air Force, and preventing him from travelling from a foreign country is offensive to a senior member of the armed forces. It is also interference in Egypt's internal affairs, and the ruling Egyptian security institutions should not accept this. Moreover, if the travel ban continues, this may contribute to a rise in his popularity, and if he is allowed to travel, after media and popular pressure, he will be indebted to the people and it will bring him into the alliances supporting the Sisi regime at home and abroad.
In short, Ahmed Shafiq does not represent the January Revolution, or its idealistic aspirations, but he does represent realistic aspirations after six difficult years. He represents a realistic opportunity to move, gradually and slowly, towards an era that is more open to the prospects of change and civilian life.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 1 December 2017
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.