CAIRO Thousands of activists gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Friday to demonstrate against presidential candidate Ahmed Shafik ahead of a run-off vote, saying they did not want to be ruled by another former military man.
Some of those in the square supported Shafik's rival Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood, which already controls parliament, but others were frustrated that they face a choice between two of Egypt's most polarizing politicians.
Protesters have been angered by Shafik's links to ousted president leader Hosni Mubarak. Both men are former air force commanders and Mubarak made Shafik prime minister shortly before being overthrown in a popular uprising 16 months ago.
"First of all, there is blood between us and him. If we elect him we're electing the old regime," said Ahmed Mustafa, 39, an unemployed Kung Fu practitioner who says he was injured by shotgun pellets during last year's uprising.
Shafik, unlike his rival Mursi, has not visited Tahrir.
At a news conference at a five-star hotel on the outskirts of Cairo, Shafik reached out to Egypt's youth, promising to keep Tahrir as a space for free speech, that the internet would remain uncensored and that he would provide jobs.
"I tell the youth not to fear. You will be free to protest and I will protect freedom of internet use," he told several hundred supporters from a stage set up on a lawn.
The June 16-17 presidential run-off vote is the final step before the army, which took charge when the autocratic Mubarak was toppled, formally hands over to a new president by July 1.
That would mark the end of a transition marred by protests, political bickering and sometimes bloodshed.
Mursi's campaign ratcheted up its efforts on Friday, distributing flyers outside mosques after noon prayers. The Brotherhood called on activists to join the demonstration in Tahrir, dubbed the "Friday of Perseverance".
Many distrust the Brotherhood for reneging on an earlier pledge not to run for the presidency and say it has sought to hog power since it won the biggest bloc of seats in parliament, winning many more seats that it originally said it would seek.
The latest round of daily protests in Tahrir was triggered by the verdict in a trial of Mubarak on June 2 that deepened suspicions that the former president's old guard remains in charge behind the scenes.
The court jailed Mubarak for life but acquitted six of his top security officials.
Protesters demanded both a retrial and enforcement of a law passed by parliament but not implemented that Mubarak-era officials be banned from participating in politics. The constitutional court will rule on the law's validity on June 14.
Scores of demonstrators chanting and carrying banners marched from Tahrir toward the nearby cabinet office, where dozens of activists were in the third day of a hunger strike.
The hunger strikers were demanding that Shafik not be allowed to run for president, that thousands of prisoners held by the military be released, and a retrial, activist Nawara Negm said. "We won't stop until parliament responds," said Nawara. She said 41 other activists had joined her in the strike.
(Additional reporting by Tamim Elyan and Marwa Awad; Editing by Mark Heinrich)