CAIRO Hosni Mubarak's last prime minister said he was running for Egypt's presidency because he had the experience to keep good ties with the generals and ensure a smooth handover to civilian rule.
Ahmed Shafiq, 71, an ex-military commander who was civil aviation minister for a decade, told Reuters in an interview that Egypt needed someone in the top post with knowledge of both army and civilian life to smooth the transition after six decades of rule by military men.
The ruling military council, which has pledged to transfer power at the end of June, has struggled to contain protests against army rule that have often turned violent, though many Egyptians still see the army as the only institution left that can prevent a descent into complete chaos.
Shafiq says he can bridge the divisions in Egypt, though analysts say he will have to work hard to prove he is not part of the old, discredited order of Mubarak, who was ousted in a popular uprising a year ago.
"You cannot suddenly bring a civilian man with no relation or knowledge of military life and make him a president and the supreme commander of the armed forces," he said. "Any civilian government will still have to deal with the military even after it cedes power in June."
"I combine both military and civil experiences and can manage the two to ensure a smooth transition," said Shafiq, who in the 1990s held the position of air force commander, the same post Mubarak once occupied before he became president.
A date for the presidential poll has yet to be finalised, but is expected in May or June. Shafiq will be competing against other declared candidates, including former Arab League chief and foreign minister Amr Moussa and Abdel Moneim Abul Futuh, an Islamist who was once a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
'DOWN WITH MILITARY RULE'
"If conflict in governance becomes the pattern of civilian-military relationships in Egypt, it will not be a smooth transition and so the president will not be able to act freely," Shafiq said. "Egypt needs a gradual shift."
Shafiq was appointed prime minister by Mubarak during the uprising against him, part of a last ditch attempt to end protests that brought the former president's 30-year rule to an end in February last year. Shafiq was premier for little more than a month before the army reshuffled the cabinet.
Hailed at first, protesters have become increasingly frustrated at the slow pace of reform under the ruling army council. "Down with military rule" is a frequent chant.
Shafiq said the generals were ready to return to barracks but he said that, after providing Egypt with its leaders since 1952 when the monarch was ousted, there was unlikely to be a decisive break and the army would continue to vie for influence.
"Civilians may be in a hurry and they think that as soon as the new president is elected he will act freely of the military. No, this will not be the case," said Shafiq. "The president will need to liaise with the military on several issues. It is a gradual process of establishing civilian governance."
Other civilian politicians have also suggested that it could take years to push the military completely out of politics, as the army controls broad business interests and has indicated it wants to keep a hand on some national security issues, such as ties with Israel that keep U.S. military aid flowing.
But coming from a former military officer, Shafiq's remarks may deepen suspicions about how long the army wants to stay.
Shafiq, however, denied he was the army's candidate.
Instead, he said he would change the way the army was treated by the state, adding that he would make the military pay taxes on profit it makes from its businesses that range from real estate to factories that make kitchen utensils.
"We will regulate the army's civilian business complex by making it pay taxes to the state just like any other civilian business or investor in the country," he said.
As minister of civil aviation, Shafiq won a reputation for efficiency and administrative competence. He supervised the modernisation of state airline EgyptAir and improvements to the country's airports.
His background prompted talk in the last few years of Mubarak's rule that Shafiq could be a potential replacement for the former president, who is now 83 and suffered several health scares during his final years in office.
However, Shafiq's prospects were overshadowed by Mubarak's youngest son, Gamal, who was widely viewed as the favoured candidate. This increasingly rankled with the Egyptian public who opposed the idea of "inherited" power.
With many Egyptians worried about the lax security after the uprising, Shafiq may still attract ordinary voters who see the army as a pillar of stability amidst the political turmoil.
"I appeal to the ordinary and normal Egyptian family ... and I do not belong to any party and choose to remain independent of any party," he said.
But he may also find himself at odds with Islamists, who have emerged as the most powerful political force in parliamentary elections, securing more than two thirds of the seats. They are unlikely to back a candidate with such close ties to Mubarak's government, which repressed them for decades.
(Writing by Marwa Awad; Editing by Edmund Blair)