CAIRO (Reuters) - Former Egyptian prime minister Ahmed Shafik, who returned home from the United Arab Emirates in mysterious circumstances after announcing his bid for Egypt’s presidency, told Reuters on Monday he was “fine” but was prevented from saying much more.
A Reuters reporter approached Shafik at a Marriott Hotel in a Cairo suburb, where he was accompanied by men in civilian clothes who refused to let him talk and quickly sent the reporter away.
“I‘m fine, thanks to God,” he replied when asked how he was, before three men shouted at the reporter to stop talking to him. “It is okay, leave it at that,” Shafik told the reporter.
Reuters was unable to establish the identity of the three men.
The former air force chief and government minister told a private Cairo television station on Sunday that he was still considering contesting next year’s election, although Shafik was less categorical than his previous declaration of intent.
“Today, I am here in the country, so I think I‘m free to deliberate further on the issue,” he told TV channel Dream. “There’s a chance now to investigate and see exactly what is needed ... to feel out if this is the logical choice.”
Some of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s critics consider 76-year-old Shafik to be the strongest potential challenger to the incumbent, who is widely expected to run for a second term next year.
On Saturday, Shafik’s family said he had been taken from their home in the Emirates and deported back to Egypt, where they said they had lost contact with him until late on Sunday.
In Sunday’s interview, he dismissed reports that he had been kidnapped.
“I hadn’t had a chance to prepare the house myself, so all I thought was I’d go to one of the hotels. I was surprised - suddenly I‘m in the car and it’s taking me to one of the nicest hotels in my area,” he said.
“Here I am talking to you and I am not kidnapped. What are the requirements for being kidnapped?”
Shafik’s lawyer met him on Sunday at the hotel, saying only that he was in good health, but not whether he was able to leave the hotel or not.
A source at the hotel said Shafik’s reservation had been made by Egypt’s armed forces, when asked for his room number to contact him.
“NOT ENTIRELY FREE”
After announcing his intention to run for president, the former aviation minister under ousted president Hosni Mubarak and later prime minister during Egypt’s 2011 revolt, began receiving indications of support from some on Cairo’s streets.
Pro-state media quickly painted him as a corrupt old regime hand with ties to the banned Muslim Brotherhood.
An interior ministry official said there were no criminal charges pending against Shafik and there had been no order to deport him from the UAE or detain him in Cairo upon his arrival.
But a general intelligence official and a national security official at the hotel said Shafik was “not entirely free”, without giving details or further explanation.
A Reuters witness and airport sources said Shafik had been accompanied in a convoy by Egyptian authorities after his arrival in Cairo.
Sisi is an ally of UAE and Saudi Arabia and his supporters say he is key to Egypt’s stability. Critics say he has eroded freedoms gained after a 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak and jailed hundreds of dissidents.
Sisi has won backing from Gulf states and has presented himself as a bulwark against Islamist militants since, as army commander, he led the overthrow in 2013 of former president Mohamed Mursi of the now banned Muslim Brotherhood.
After four decades in the military, Shafik touted his military experience as one of his strengths in a 2012 election, which he narrowly lost to Mursi.
Shafik fled to UAE to escape corruption charges in June 2012. He dismissed the charges as politically motivated and was taken off airport watchlists last year.
Sisi has yet to announce his own intentions for the election. His supporters dismiss criticism over rights abuses and say any measures are needed for security in the face of an Islamist insurgency that has killed hundreds of police and soldiers.
His government is struggling to crush the insurgency in the North Sinai region and has enacted painful austerity reforms over the last year which critics say have eroded his popularity.
Additional reporting by Eric Knecht and Mostafa Hashem in Cairo and Aziz El Yaakoubi in Dubai; Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg