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Military leader hints he’ll seek Egypt’s presidency

With opposition crushed, Sissi expected to win

“The trust of the people is a call that demands compliance,” said Abdul-Fattah el-Sissi.

AP/File

“The trust of the people is a call that demands compliance,” said Abdul-Fattah el-Sissi.

CAIRO — Field Marshal Abdul-Fattah el-Sissi, the military leader who removed Egypt’s first freely elected president last year, took the first formal steps on Monday to become president himself, setting the stage for a return of the military-backed government that had appeared to end three years ago.

Sissi, currently defense minister, told a meeting of his top generals on Monday that “the trust of the people is a call that demands compliance” and that seeking the presidency was now “the call of duty,” according to a statement by the military.

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The generals, who make up the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, authorized him to run for president, state television reported. Sissi has yet to formally announce his plans; the election is expected to be held by the end of April.

Sissi, who was promoted to field marshal — the military’s top rank — on Monday, now appears likely to become Egypt’s sixth president, its fifth from the ranks of the military.

Although two other candidates from the 2012 presidential elections, the leftist Hamdeen Sabahi and the moderate Islamist Abdel-Moneim Aboul Fotouh, have left open the possibility of running again, Sissi is expected to win easily, in part because the government he installed last year has crushed its most potent opponents, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Sissi, 59, stands to inherit all the problems of poverty and corruption that fueled the 2011 uprising against the country’s longtime strongman, Hosni Mubarak.

He also would have to address grave new threats to public security: simmering street protests and an armed insurgency that erupted last year after the military ejected Mubarak’s popularly elected successor, the former Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi.

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Sissi’s positions on most policy issues remain a mystery, and the defining characteristic of his six months as Egypt’s de facto ruler has been a ruthless crackdown on the Brotherhood and, increasingly, on liberal dissenters as well.

If he is elected as expected, Sissi would also bring to the office some important assets, including personal charisma, an up-by-the-bootstraps life story, and an easy fluidity in the language of Islam that eluded his military predecessors.

His deftly choreographed performance as the national hero who saved Egypt from despair and division after the vexed one-year rule of Morsi has endowed him with an extraordinary personal popularity, not seen since the 1950s when Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser ended the British-backed monarchy.

Earlier this month, when the military put a revised constitution up for a popular vote that was seen as a referendum on Sissi’s leadership, more than 98 percent of the ballots cast were in favor.

Sissi was named defense minister by Morsi in the summer of 2012, and at the time he appeared determined to keep the military out of politics.

“With all respect for those who say to the army, ‘Go into the street’: If this happened, we won’t be able to speak of Egypt moving forward for 30 or 40 years,” Sissi said in the spring of 2013.

A few months later, though, he led the military to remove Morsi from office after a weekend of huge street protests.

A presidential bid by Sissi would bring a new twist in Egypt’s government transition, which began with 2011 revolt against Mubarak, a veteran of the military who ruled for nearly 30 years. The goal of the rebellion was to bring civilian rule to Egypt, along with democratic reforms.

The elections that followed the 2011 uprisings were the country’s first democratic vote and brought Morsi and the Islamists to power. But massive protests prompted Sissi to depose Morsi on July 3.

Since the coup, police have waged a 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 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, the Associated Press reported. The Social Democrats were part of the liberal alliance that supported Morsi’s ouster.

While the generals were holding their meeting Monday, interim President Adly Mansour announced Sissi’s promotion from general to field marshal apparently as a final honor before he leaves the military.

The promotion gives 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. Morsi removed Tantawi and installed Sissi.

The fragile security situation feeds into many Egyptians’ need for a strong leader who can restore stability.

If Sissi runs, he would probably 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.

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