CAIRO – Thousands of people took to the streets in cities across Egypt on Friday to demand that Ahmed Shafiq, a former senior official in Hosni Mubarak's ousted regime, be disqualified from next month's presidential runoff.
Shafiq, who served as Mubarak's last prime minister, was one of the top two finishers in the first round of Egypt's landmark presidential election last month, advancing to a June 16-17 runoff against Mohammed Morsi, the candidate of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood.
The Morsi-Shafiq race is a polarizing contest. It mirrors the conflict between Mubarak, himself a career air force officer like Shafiq, and the Islamists he jailed and tortured throughout his years in power. But it sidelines the mostly young, secular activists who led the popular uprising last year.
In the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, at least 7,000 protesters, some of them carrying Egyptian flags or holding their shoes in the air in a sign of disrespect, said that Shafiq should be barred from running because of his senior position in the Mubarak regime.
Smaller rallies demanding Shafiq's disqualification also took place in Cairo, Port Said, Suez, North Sinai as well as at least six other provinces.
Shafiq has cast himself as a strongman who will restore law and order after nearly 16 months of sporadic but violent protests and a lapse in security. Shortly after the first round results were announced this week, Shafiq's campaign headquarters in Cairo was torched.
Opponents view Shafiq as the favorite of the ruling military council that took over after Mubarak's ouster. Egypt's four presidents all hailed from the military.
Mubarak himself has been charged with complicity in the killing of nearly 900 protesters during the 18-day uprising that pushed him from power. A court is to hand down its verdict on Saturday.
Many Egyptians say they want neither Shafiq, considered "feloul," or a remnant of the Mubarak era, nor the Brotherhood's candidate, Morsi, as their next president, and protesters criticized both candidates Friday.
"I am here and I don't want Shafiq or Morsi because Shafiq spilled our children's blood. I paid the price of this revolution upfront," said Magda, the mother of a protester killed during last year's uprising. "As for the Brotherhood, they sat in parliament and what have they done?"
Some of the protesters Friday chanted slogans against both candidates as well as the ruling military council that took power after Mubarak was toppled, and some in the crowd said they will boycott the runoff.
"I don't want either candidate because we didn't benefit from either and the country didn't benefit from either," Cairo protester Ahmed Abdel-Fattah said.
Activists are also pressing for the implementation of a law passed by the recently elected parliament, which bars former top regime officials from the past 10 years from running for office.
Shafiq was briefly disqualified from the race ahead of last month's vote after parliament passed the law, but he was reinstated 24 hours later after the presidential election commission referred the law to the Constitutional Court. The court is set to rule on the issue just four days ahead of the runoff.
Amr Moussa, a former Egyptian foreign minister and ex-chief of the Arab League, lent his support Saturday to 15 liberal parties and lawmakers pressing Morsi and Shafiq to agree to a list of demands, including the formation of representative government and oversight of the writing of a new constitution that guarantees the rights of minorities.
Moussa finished fifth in the first round of the presidential vote.
Also Friday, drivers waited in long lines at gas stations across much of the country for the second day in a row. The stream of cars lined up outside Cairo gas stations has compounded the problem of the city's daily traffic jams.
The government vowed to resolve the crisis by Saturday, blaming the shortage on electrical problems at a main fuel supplier.
The state-run Al-Ahram newspaper quoted unnamed Oil Ministry officials as saying the government was behind on payments to suppliers, causing a delay in oil shipments to Egypt.
Lines also formed at gas stations in January just days before the one-year anniversary of the revolt. The gas crisis then blew over as quickly as it started. It is not clear what sparked that crisis, but many activists claimed it was a plot by military rulers to make people long for the days when Mubarak was in power.