Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 - 16 February 2011
Issue No. 1034
Special
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Ahmed Shafik: Tough


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Ahmed Shafik

WHEN Ahmed Shafik was chosen prime minister two weeks ago amid the unrest, speculation was rife that his new government might not survive even for a few hours. But the government is standing, due in no small part to this former military man's hard as nails personality.

In 2002, Shafik, former aviation minister and ex-air force commander, shed his uniform, ending almost 40 years of military service, to join political life as aviation minister.

Switching from military to civilian life, Shafik did not give up his stern style of management. He surrounded himself with military colleagues, changing air transport from one operating a regional airline and airport into a comprehensive international business and industry connected to famous international bodies related to the field.

He seems to have brought this same attitude to his new cabinet. "Those who are qualified and whom I know are better than those who are qualified but whom I don't know," Shafik said, an indication of how he selects his aides.

In addition to the defence minister and state minister of military production who kept their places in the new cabinet, Shafik brought in two Air Forces colleagues: his right hand man in aviation since 2002, Ibrahim Manaa, who was assigned aviation minister, and ex-chairman of the national carrier, Atef Abdel-Hamid who became transport minister.

Shafik kept 15 members of the previous cabinet but insists they could be subject to change any time.

"Not only them, but also the new ministers who I selected myself. They may be dismissed and replaced if they prove not able to respond to my way of work, regardless of how long they have held the post."

Shafik is known as not tolerating mistakes for the sake of friendship. "My friends describe me as a person that does not value friendship. I am not angry but I do not allow friendship to get in the way of work."

Over the past two years, Shafik was often talked of as a future premier. Now Shafik's name is being associated with the presidency. Two month ago, Shafik's name was leaked as a possible contender for the presidency, along with Gamal Mubarak and Omar Suleiman, now the vice president.

"Shafik has a good reputation," a senior official in Egypt's ruling party said. "His name is definitely out there. He's tough, honest, and low-key. He's a very stable person, very balanced, and very quiet."

"I do not think I suit the post, not at my age. I am old enough to dismiss the suggestion," Shafik, 69, told Al-Jazeera.

As a former Air Forces commander, Shafik comes from a relatively limited cadre of powerful retired generals serving in influential civilian roles. He was a hero of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war in which he contributed as a fighter pilot under Mubarak's command.

When he first took over the Aviation Ministry his first battle was with businessmen who campaigned to push the government to sell the national carrier, among state assets having been sold, or at least to minimise the carrier's business in favour of private airlines. Shafik tightening his grip on the business and imposed new regulations allowing only "serious investors" into the business.

He stood firmly against attempts to force his administration to apply open sky policies by tourism businessmen and foreign airlines.

During two major protests by pilots and air controllers, Shafik remained steadfast. "If we negotiate under pressure, all the others will follow."

He is proud that on his watch the state's monitoring bodies did not report a single case of corruption within the Aviation Ministry or its affiliated companies and associations.

His policies have resulted in positive feedback at the international level, even managing to persuade the World Bank to finance air transport projects in Egypt for the first time, and providing the funding for the new terminal at Cairo International.

Forming a cabinet in a state of emergency, Shafik was happy to exclude businessmen from his team. "Many people cannot, or do not, want to recognise the difference between normal economic activities and the country's main resources," Shafik said.

"I am sure the crisis will end and we will handle the political dispute. But there are continuous losses due to the economy being paralysed at present."

He ordered the curfew reduced from 17 hours to 10 hours and also ordered financial institutions and banks to resume work last Sunday whatever the circumstances.

When clashes broke out in Tahrir Square between anti-government protesters and supporters of President Hosni Mubarak which killed at least eight people and injured 900 others Shafik apologised to the nation in a press conference, the first time in decades Egyptians had seen a prime minister say he was sorry to his people.

He said the government had no hand in the clash and that rioters would be brought to justice. He began the first session of the new cabinet on Monday by observing a minute of silence for those who died in the clashes.

He has guaranteed the safety of protesters in Tahrir Square who since bloody confrontations on 28 January have enjoyed full protection.

As a military commander who served under Mubarak's command he maintained his loyalty to both the president and the military, refusing to negotiate any formula for the president to hand over power to the vice president. "This will cause a legal problem and even suspend the reform process," Shafik said. "Mubarak will complete his presidential term during which we will be working on modifications and reform."

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