CAIRO - Young Egyptians who are savvy about the Internet and want greater freedom would have nothing to fear if former Hosni Mubarak military commander Ahmed Shafiq is elected president, the candidate said on Friday.
Seeking to quell fears of youth activists who say a Shafiq presidency would bring back Mubarak's autocratic state, the former air force commander said he would not clamp down on freedom of expression.
"No youth will be jailed for his political activities or expressing his views in the new republic (of Egypt). Fear not for your future," Shafiq said at a press conference while thousands of protesters rallied in Cairo's Tahrir Square against him.
"I follow what you write on the Internet, Facebook and Twitter. I promise to guarantee the freedom of the Internet. We will develop telecommunication," he said, addressing youth from the setting of a five-star golf resort on the outskirts of Cairo.
Egypt's run-off vote on June 16-17 pits Shafiq, Mubarak's last prime minister, against the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Mursi, polarizing voters who fear a return to autocratic rule under Shafiq or a radical shift to an Islamic state led by the Brotherhood.
In Tahrir Square, miles away from the security-packed hotel, young people of various political backgrounds said the idea of a post-revolution Egypt run by a former military man and Mubarak associate was hard to stomach.
"Shafiq represents the counter-revolution. He is a former military man and one of Mubarak's henchmen. As president he will consolidate the grip of security forces on society. The freedom we fought and many of us died fighting for are at risk," a leading activist who asked not to be named said.
Outside the plush hotel where Shafiq addressed supporters and journalists, two interior ministry trucks full of riot police stood guard while senior police officers were present at the event. Some said they supported Shafiq.
"Tahrir Square has witnessed what you have done for Egypt. I promise that it and other squares across the country will continue to remain free and secure for the freedom of expression," Shafiq said.
The latest protests in Tahrir were triggered by the verdict in a trial of Mubarak on June 2, which added to suspicions that the former president's old guard remained in charge. The court jailed Mubarak for life but freed six of his top security officials.
Protesters have demanded a retrial and enforcement of a law passed by parliament but not implemented that Mubarak-era officials be banned from participating in politics. The constitutional court will rule on the law's validity on June 14.
Judicial sources told Reuters the court will likely reject the law, effectively allowing Shafiq to continue in the race.
The ruling military council, which took charge when Mubarak was ousted and promises to transfer power on July 1, has said it does not support either candidate.