ABU DHABI (Reuters) - To his critics, Ahmed Shafik is a typical autocrat consigned to history’s dustbin by the Arab Spring - a military man turned politician who ended his career amid corruption allegations and fled to the Gulf.
To his friends - and he has powerful ones in the oil-rich Arabian peninsula - the former air force pilot and prime minister is an authentic voice of opposition to the civilian politician who beat him narrowly in a presidential run-off vote.
Whatever the truth, Shafik is confident that with Egypt in turmoil seven months into its experiment with Islamist rule, its often-reviled political old guard will eventually be seen by Egyptians, and by Washington, in a more kindly light.
“Egyptians reject the current regime,” said the silver-haired 71-year-old, the last prime minister of Hosni Mubarak, the president who was ousted in 2011 after three decades in power.
“They do not reject the regime from nothing, they reject it as a result of the actions that have taken place over the last seven months ... It has not been a success.”
“There’s is a new system for terrorizing the Egyptian people and this is an indication of anxiety within the upper levels of the regime and of the nearing of the end of the road.”
He spoke to Reuters in a gated luxury hotel-managed villa in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, where he fled with his daughters and grandchildren in June 2012, two days after his opponent, Mohamed Mursi, was declared president.
Shafik says Egypt’s first popularly elected president is driving the country deeper into political, economic and social turmoil and as a result will lose power.
In recent months, opposition groups have criticized Mursi’s perceived drift towards authoritarianism, which they say fueled unrest this year in which at least 59 people were killed.
Shafik said the government’s inexperience is to blame and - in a reflex from the Mubarak years - said “terrorism” was embedded in the now-dominant Islamist political groups. Mursi’s roots are in the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement founded in Egypt in the 1928.
“The situation is not stable,” Shafik said. “You can’t bring a group from nothing to suddenly running a country of 90 million people with a lot of problems and a sensitive geographical location.”
He said he did not intend to leave Egypt forever and would return “when the time is right”, despite being on an official watch list over graft charges which he dismisses as politicized.
“I decided to leave because I couldn’t guarantee what would happen ... When you have someone who is opposing you who is sane you would be reassured about his reaction, but when you have someone opposing you who is insane then you don’t know how he’ll react,” he said.
Shafik speaks loudly and moves constantly. He also carries himself in a combative, stubborn manner, a trait reminiscent of his old boss, Mubarak, Egyptians close to the old guard say.
In a military career spanning four decades, Shafik served as a senior fighter pilot under Mubarak’s command, and was credited for shooting down two Israeli aircrafts in the October 1973 war.
Shafik predicted Washington’s view of Egypt’s political Islamist rulers would become steadily less benign.
“The U.S. used to think that empowering Islamist political parties would bring an end to Islamist terrorism,” he said.
“Only recently did they find out that Islamist terrorism is embedded within these parties,” he said.
The United States, which was a staunch ally of Mubarak until he was overthrown in 2011, is now trying to build a dependable relationship with Mursi.
Reporting by Amena Bakr, Editing by William Maclean and Andrew Heavens