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Egypt’s top general may run for president

General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi emerged as Egypt’s paramount decision maker after the military takeover in July.

EPA/file 2013

General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi emerged as Egypt’s paramount decision maker after the military takeover in July.

CAIRO — Egypt’s top military officer on Saturday offered the clearest indication yet that he sees this week’s referendum on a revised constitution as a prelude to a bid for the presidency, moving to consolidate his power after his ouster of President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The officer, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, swiftly emerged as Egypt’s paramount decision maker after the military takeover in July, but he had previously left some doubt about whether he would try to add the formal title of president or keep his power behind the scenes.

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On Saturday, though, he all but explicitly announced he would run by linking his potential presidential candidacy to the constitutional referendum, set to begin Monday. The timing of his statement suggested he would view a yes vote as a demonstration of his mandate to seek the presidency. It is also the first effort to add formal democratic legitimacy to his ouster of Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected president.

“If I run, then it must be at the request of the people and with a mandate from my army,” el-Sissi said at a military seminar, according to the website of the state newspaper, Al Ahram. “I can’t turn my back on Egypt.”

El-Sissi, the defense minister, urged voters to turn out to vote for the constitution in frankly personal terms.

“Don’t embarrass me in front of the world,” he said, “not me personally but the military, because in the military we are as united as one man’s heart, and we adhere to democracy.” He noted that the new charter authorizes the military to “protect the will of the people” and he vowed, “We will protect it in any circumstances.”

The explicit link between his candidacy and the referendum appeared to be a bet that he could promote both at once, exploiting his personal popularity to draw sympathetic voters to the constitutional plebiscite, while at the same time using it to begin his presidential campaign.

The revised charter is not radically different from the constitution that was drafted by an Islamist-led assembly. That charter, which was approved slightly more than a year ago by almost 2-to-1 with about one-third of the electorate voting, set a benchmark for this week’s vote.

The new text includes some broader language protecting religious freedom and women’s rights while excising some, but not all, of the stipulations that Islamic law is the bedrock of Egyptian jurisprudence.

Its biggest changes, instead, are increases in the power and autonomy of the military, the police and the judiciary — the three governmental institutions that teamed up to help force Morsi from power.

Approval is already widely expected, but el-Sissi and the civilian government he installed appear to be leaving little to chance.

The streets are full of billboards and signs urging a yes vote to finish the 2011 revolution that defined the Arab Spring. The state news media and Egyptian private television networks, all supportive of the military takeover, are effusive in their endorsements of the new charter and contain scarcely a word of criticism. A group of Egyptian movie stars has recorded a television commercial singing a song in praise of the new charter, ending with a call for a thousand yeses to the new constitution. And the military itself has produced a television advertisement in which a group of children sing their own endorsement to a martial theme.

“It’s to be or not to be,” the children sing, warning listeners that they will be judged by God for their vote and urging them not to “leave my country for destruction.”

El-Sissi’s personal appeal Saturday is a significant new push. Although Islamists around the country continue to hold weekly protests against the military takeover, el-Sissi is lauded as a hero by the state and private media. Outside of Islamist circles, many Egyptians regard him as a potential savior promising an end to the 2 1/2 years of chaos between the ousters of Presidents Hosni Mubarak and Morsi.

The interim government has made it significantly easier for Egyptians to vote, eliminating a requirement that Egyptians vote in the district of their official residence. Many are still registered in their birthplace, although they live and work in other regions.

The government has shown little tolerance for opposition; even hanging signs urging a vote against the new charter has sometimes been treated as a crime. At least four members of the Strong Egypt party, founded by the moderate former Muslim Brotherhood leader Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh, have been arrested for attempting to post signs criticizing the text and urging a “no” vote.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that backed Morsi and won the most votes in recent elections, has said it will boycott the referendum, which it sees as an attempt to legitimize an illegal coup.

But the military-backed transitional government has already crippled the group. It has silenced the main Islamist media outlets, killed more than 1,000 demonstrators in crackdowns on street protests against the military takeover, and arrested thousands of the Islamists and most of their leaders. Morsi and his top advisers are in jail, and members of the Brotherhood say that a new wave of arrests has swept up another swath of its mid-level leaders in the run-up to the referendum, an apparent attempt to prevent disruptions of the vote.

In the last two months, the government has also broadened its crackdown to include a growing number of non-Islamist dissenters whom it feared might organize opposition to the referendum. It has passed a law strictly limiting the right to protest, authorizing force if necessary to disperse demonstrations, and imposing heavy penalties on protest organizers.

El-Sissi has often sought to present himself as the guardian and heir to that revolution that ousted Mubarak with a call to build a new democracy. But in recent weeks, his government has arrested and jailed at least four of the most prominent non-Islamist organizers who helped jump-start the 2011 revolt against: Ahmed Maher, Mohamed Adel, Ahmed Douma, Alaa Abdel-Fattah.

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