CAIRO — The strongest challenger to Egypt’s military-backed leader withdrew from the country’s presidential race on Sunday, with his lawyer saying the government had forced him to drop out.
The candidate, Ahmed Shafik, a former Air Force general who narrowly lost the country’s only free presidential election in 2012, was deported back to Egypt from the United Arab Emirates in December, just days after announcing his intention to run in the 2018 election.
Shortly after his arrival, Mr. Shafik called a popular television show, on which he denied news reports about his deportation and said that he was reconsidering his bid for president. On Sunday, Mr. Shafik put an end to the guesswork over his candidacy with a terse statement on Twitter, saying, “After reviewing the situation, I realized I am not the best person to manage state affairs in the coming period.”
بياني الى شعب مصر العظيم، بشأن قراري عدم الترشح للانتخابات الرئاسية المقبلة. pic.twitter.com/snxpnEUiFK
— أحمد شفيق (@AhmedShafikEG) January 7, 2018
His exit from the race reinforced popular concerns over the integrity of the presidential election, which is set to take place this spring. Mr. Shafik, 76, could not be immediately reached for comment on Sunday, but one of the lawyers representing him said that the Egyptian government had coerced him into withdrawing by threatening to investigate old corruption charges against him. They lawyer spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the subject’s sensitivity.
The lawyer’s account was broadly confirmed by audio recordings of telephone calls by an Egyptian intelligence officer, which were obtained by The New York Times. During one of those calls, the officer, Capt. Ashraf al-Kholi, cautioned a television presenter against attacking Mr. Shafik on his show because the government was “still in talks” with him. “If he decides to be with us, then he is one of the former leaders of the armed forces, you got it?” Mr. Kholi said; but if he doesn’t, “we will curse his father’s forebears.”
President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who rose to power after overthrowing Mohamed Morsi, an Islamist president, in 2013, has yet to announce his candidacy, but he is expected to run, and critics worry that he will try to exclude any real competitors. Two other candidates who have entered the race are currently facing charges that many believe are politically motivated. If they are convicted, they will be ineligible to run.
Since returning to Cairo from the United Arab Emirates a few weeks ago, Mr. Shafik has spent most of his time in a suite at a luxury hotel in Cairo, declining to give interviews while Egyptian politicians and ordinary people wondered whether he was under arrest. His relatives and aides said that he was not allowed to speak to anyone nor go anywhere without the permission of Egypt’s security agencies.
Even though he prospered in the era of Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted from power in 2011 by a popular uprising, Mr. Shafik has a large base of supporters in Egypt. His military record, and name recognition, may have made him a strong candidate.
He fought in Egypt’s two wars with Israel, in 1967 and 1973, and rose to command the Air Force. As minister of civil aviation, a post he held for a decade beginning in 2001, he oversaw the modernization and development of the national airline and the Cairo airport.
In a bid to bolster his support during his last days in power in 2011, Mr. Mubarak promoted Mr. Shafik to prime minister in the hope that he could resolve the crisis brought about by a popular uprising. Mr. Shafik lost the presidential election to Mr. Morsi the next year by only about 2 percent of the vote. To some of his supporters, Mr. Shafik was seen as a candidate who could have helped restore the stability they enjoyed before the Arab Spring erupted.
The Egyptian government has been overseeing a harsh crackdown on opponents since 2013. Hundreds have been killed in street protests and thousands jailed. Militant attacks, many by the Islamic State, have multiplied since, dealing multiple blows to the country’s economy.