RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Egyptians are getting ready for an historic vote, their first real presidential election since former President Hosni Mubarak was ousted during the Arab Spring. Twelve candidates are in the running. One them, former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, is already dividing voters ahead of Wednesday's vote. Many consider Shafiq a corrupt holdover from the old regime.
But as NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Cairo, he is gaining widespread support from Egyptians fed up with the growing insecurity in their country.
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Ahmed Shafiq spends more time these days trying to clear his name than talking about what he'll do if he is elected president.
AHMED SHAFIQ: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: At a recent news conference, he lashed out at allegations that he was involved in shady land deals during the regime of ousted President Hosni Mubarak. He accused the Islamist lawmaker who made the claim of working for Egypt's hated state security service.
Neither the allegations nor his mudslinging appear to be dampening support for the retired air force general. He was applauded at the news conference.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
NELSON: He came in second in a recent poll of voters conducted by the state-funded Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. The survey found one in five Egyptians back Shafiq.
Supporter Mohammed Shehata says he's not surprised his candidate is gaining ground. The 22-year-old journalism graduate is convinced Shafiq, who has good relations with Egypt's ruling generals and security forces, is the only one who can bring back law and order.
MOHAMMED SHEHATA: We need someone with a military background just to enforce stability in the country. I don't want to try someone new. I don't want to try an Islamic regime. I don't want to try with the leftists.
NELSON: Computer science teacher Remon Mounir Hozayen agrees.
REMON MOUNIR HOZAYEN: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: The Coptic Christian dismisses those who call Shafiq felool, or remnant of the old regime. He views Shafiq as a potential stalwart against the Islamist-controlled parliament. Things in Egypt are worse now than they ever were under Mubarak, Hozayen says.
Like Mubarak, Shafiq is a former fighter pilot. He commanded the Egyptian air force for six years before becoming the country's first civil aviation minister. Some analysts say his successes were overshadowed by allegations of graft.
Khaled Fahmy chairs the history department at the American University in Cairo.
DR. KHALED FAHMY: The questions about his financial dealings had to do not with the renovation of Egypt Air, but with rebuilding of airports - civilian airfields throughout the country. And the question that people raise about him is that he had many dealings with Mubarak's sons, in passing many dubious deals in that field.
NELSON: Analysts say Shafiq also has to contend with the notoriety of being Mubarak's last prime minister. His relationship with protesters at Tahrir Square last year was strained. He dismissed them as whiners and offered to send them candy. Like Mubarak, Shafiq was eventually forced to resign.
But these days, many people yearn for the stability of the old regime as they face growing insecurity and a weakening economy, says Hassan Abu Taleb who is a consultant for the Al-Ahram Center.
HASSAN ABU TALEB: For many people, Shafiq is the man for stability, a man for security, a man for moderate economic liberalism.
NELSON: But a Shafiq victory in this week's voting is far from certain.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING PROTESTERS)
NELSON: His candidacy drew many protesters back to Tahrir Square when election officials gave the retired general the green light to run. Vandals have also destroyed many of his campaign posters around Cairo.
AMR HUSSEIN: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: At Shafiq's campaign headquarters here, official Amr Hussein tries to boost the spirits of dozens of volunteers. He tells them it's a tough race, in which competitors are using dirty tricks to undermine Shafiq. But Hussein adds they owe it to Egypt to get their candidate's message out there.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.