CAIRO — Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the defense minister and military officer who led last summer’s takeover of the elected government in Egypt, formally announced Wednesday that he is resigning from the army and running for president, taking a critical step in his consolidation of power.
Sissi, who held the rank of field marshal, is almost universally expected to win the election and thus formalize the de facto power he currently holds. He has been the government’s preeminent decision-maker since he led the ouster of Egypt’s first freely elected leader, President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, on July 3.
But by resigning from the army Wednesday, Sissi ended his direct command of the armed forces, which until now has been the main base of his power.
The Egyptian military has a long history of stepping into civilian politics. Over the past 62 years, military officers have removed all four heads of state who did not die in office, including President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and Morsi in 2013.
Perhaps mindful of that history, Sissi has sought for the past few weeks to leave his stamp on the armed forces before resigning by presiding over a shuffling of the military’s top officers. He had already handpicked his successor as defense minister, his deputy and chief of staff, General Sobhi, who was promoted Wednesday to colonel general by Egypt’s interim president, Adly Mansour.
Among the most notable changes in the ranks, Sissi reassigned General Ahmed Wasfi, a charismatic and outspoken officer who had shown signs of developing his own base of popular support. He won widespread praise for restoring security in the Suez Canal zone after riots last year and then led more recent operations in the Northern Sinai.
In a recent television interview, Wasfi had also raised awkward questions about what it might mean if Sissi, then a general, was to be promoted or elected to a higher office.
The interim government Sissi installed at the time of the takeover has preferred to characterize that change of power as a “second revolution” and not a “military coup,” emphasizing a day of massive street protests calling for Morsi’s resignation.
But in the interview, Wasfi had suggested that Sissi’s ascension to a higher rank or office would be a sign that the takeover had in fact been a “coup.”
“Does General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi have an extra star?” Wasfi asked, arguing that the absence of any promotion proved no military coup had taken place. “Does the defense minister, or the general, or any of us on the military council have a higher job position? Did you find out the general has become a prime minister? A president?”
Sissi “is just as is, a defense minister,” Wasfi continued, arguing that the takeover was not a coup because “no military personnel have come to power.”
Sissi was promoted from general to field marshal a short time after the interview.
Analysts said it was natural that Sissi wanted to sort out the military before leaving his post. “He apparently wanted to make sure that the military was in order, from his perspective,” said Moataz Abdel-Fattah, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo. “He wanted to make sure that he was on top of this process.”
Sissi faces enormous challenges, including a stagnant economy, widespread labor unrest, a wave of terrorist attacks, and ongoing street protests against the takeover. On Wednesday, security forces used tear gas and birdshot to break up the latest student demonstrations that flared up at Cairo University, Al Azhar University, and other campuses across the country.
Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi spent recent weeks shuffling the military’s leaders, including hand-picking his successor.
By early evening, at least one student at Cairo University had been killed and more than a dozen were injured, the official media reported.
Sissi’s views on policy issues are almost completely unknown to the public.
But he faces little opposition in the presidential race. Several would-be candidates have declined to enter, saying that the support of the military and security services all but guaranteed his victory.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that dominated the previous elections, has been decimated.
The only other candidate to enter the presidential race so far is Hamdeen Sabahy, a left-leaning populist who came in third place in the first round of the 2012 presidential election.