CAIRO (AP) — Army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who led the coup ousting Egypt's Islamist president, moved closer to declaring his candidacy to replace him, securing the military's backing on Monday for a presidential run, due by the end of April.
Though he's riding on a wave of nationalist fervor touting him as the nation's savior to bring stability, his candidacy is certain to enflame a violent backlash from Islamists.
A run by the 59-year-old el-Sissi, a U.S.-trained infantry officer, would be a new twist in Egypt's tumultuous transition, which began with 2011 revolt against autocratic President Hosni Mubarak — a veteran of the military who ruled for nearly 30 years — in the name of bringing civilian rule, reform and greater democracy.
The elections that followed were the country's first democratic vote and brought the Islamists to power, installing Muslim Brotherhood figure Mohammed Morsi as president, only for a large portion of the population to turn against them, accusing the Brotherhood of trying to monopolize power. Massive protests prompted el-Sissi to depose Morsi on July 3.
Since Morsi's ouster, Egypt has seen a wave of pro-military nationalist fervor and a return to prominence of security agencies that under Mubarak — and even after — were widely hated for abuses of power. Soon after the coup, millions of Egyptians answered el-Sissi's call to take to the street in rallies to "delegate" him to fight terrorism. Police have since waged a fierce crackdown on the Brotherhood, killing hundreds of supporters and arresting thousands more. The government branded the Brotherhood a terrorist organization, accusing it of orchestrating the violence. The group denies the charge, saying it is aimed at justifying the crackdown.
The heavy-handed security crackdown also swept away secular-leaning activists and youth leaders as part of a wave of intimidation of critics, sparking fears among some of a return to a Mubarak-style police state.
"It will more or less be a one man show," said Ahmed Fawzi, the secretary general of the Social Democratic party, part of the liberal alliance that supported Morsi's ouster.
The fragile security situation only feeds into many Egyptians' need for a strong man who can restore stability. If el-Sissi runs in the elections due by the end of April, he would likely sweep the vote, given his popularity among a significant sector of the public, the lack of alternatives, the almost universal support in Egypt's media and the powerful atmosphere of intimidation against critics pervading the country.
But Fawzy predicted it also would likely provoke a backlash by Islamists.
"There is a personal vendetta between el-Sissi and Islamists. No doubt violence will only increase under el-Sissi," Fawzy said.
While el-Sissi is yet to make a final announcement, the military's top body of generals, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, endorsed the idea after an hours-long meeting Monday to discuss el-Sissi's candidacy, according to military spokesman Col. Ahmed Mohammed Ali.
In an audio statement, the council said it was the majority's will.
"The council cannot but look with respect and homage to the desire of the wide masses of the great Egyptian people to nominate Gen. el-Sissi for the presidency, and considers it an assignment and commitment."
While the generals were holding their meeting, interim President Adly Mansour announced el-Sissi's promotion from general to field marshal — the military's top rank — apparently as a final honor before he leaves the military.
The promotion gives el-Sissi the same rank held by his predecessor, Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, who was army chief and defense minister for years under Mubarak and who then stepped in as military ruler for nearly 17 months after Mubarak's ouster. After Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president, was inaugurated in 2012, he removed Tantawi and installed el-Sissi.