CAIRO (AP) — Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the Egyptian military chief who last summer removed the elected Islamist president, announced Wednesday that he will run for president in elections expected next month, putting him on an apparent track to lead a nation beleaguered by ongoing turmoil and violence, a broken political order, a dilapidated economy and concerns over the chances for building a democracy.
Wearing his military fatigues in a nationally televised speech, el-Sissi announced he was resigning from the armed forces – a required step since only civilians can run for president. He declared that it was the last time he would wear his uniform because he was stepping down to run president and continue to defend the country. He said he was “answering the demand of a wide range of Egyptians.”
The 59-year-old el-Sissi is widely expected to win the vote, and restore a tradition of presidents from military background that Egypt had for all but one year since 1952. He has been the country’s most powerful figure since removing President Mohammed Morsi, and Morsi’s once politically dominant Muslim Brotherhood has since been declared a terrorist group.
A nationalist fervor has gripped the country since the removal of Morsi, who in 2012 became Egypt’s first freely elected and civilian president. The ouster in July came after massive protests by millions against Morsi and the Islamists.
Since then, the military-backed interim government has waged a fierce crackdown on the Brotherhood, arresting thousands of members and killing hundreds of protesters in clashes. At the same time, militants have waged a campaign of attacks on police and the military, and authorities have accused the Brotherhood of orchestrating terrorism, a claim the group denies.
Magdy Karkar, a senior member of a Brotherhood-led coalition organizing anti-government protests, said el-Sissi’s candidacy confirms that Morsi’s removal was a coup aimed at wrecking democracy, as Islamists have contended.
“His running will not achieve stability in Egypt. It’s true he has many supporters who love him or even worship him. But on the other hand, there are those who hate Gen. el-Sissi and hold him responsible for the blood that has been shed,” Karkar told The Associated Press.
For months, Egyptian media have been depicting el-Sissi, who was promoted to the rank of field marshal in January, as “the savior of the nation” for removing Morsi – and touting him as the only figure capable of running the country. Although there are no credible nationwide polls – in a country with widespread illiteracy – there is a strong sense that el-Sissi will easily win, with little competition.
Watching his speech in a coffee shop in Cairo, Sabry Ahmed, in his late 50s, said el-Sissi has what Egypt needs.
“He is a political man, a military man, and an economics man. He understands in everything regarding the state,” he said. “We can’t compare him to anyone else. The country needs a strong man of his size.”
In the neighborhood where el-Sissi was born in old Cairo, celebrations broke out as soon as he finished his speech. A distant relative, Mohammed Haroun, cheered: “This is the best decision he took in his life.”
His candidacy – and presidency, is he wins – is another dramatic turn in Egypt’s trajectory that began with the 2011 ouster of autocrat Hosni Mubarak in a popular uprising demanding democracy after a 29-year rule. The series of elections that followed were the freest Egypt has seen, and brought the Brotherhood and their Islamist allies to political dominance – only to see a large sector of the public turn against them over what was seen as exclusionary politics and attempts to reshape Egypt’s identity to deepen the role of Islam.
Morsi was Egypt’s only president since 1952 to not come from a military background. Amid the crackdown since his fall, critics fear a return to autocratic ways similar to the Mubarak era, in light of increasing reports of police abuses and intolerance of dissent.
The election commission is expected over the weekend to announce the date of the election.
The campaign will be a stark contrast to the 2012 vote, when 13 candidates of multiple political stripes ran for the presidency. This time, so far only one person has announced his intention to run against el-Sissi – leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi, who came in third in the 2012 vote.
Clearly mindful of his own security, el-Sissi is not expected to tour the country during the campaign and is expected to have tight security around him.
In his address Wednesday night, el-Sissi acknowledged that “under the circumstances that you all know, I’m not going to launch a traditional presidential campaign.” But he promised to put forward a clear program and platform and said he intended to build a “modern and democratic Egypt.”
“These recent years of our nation’s history have conclusively shown that no one can become president of Egypt against the will of the people,” he said.
He spoke of “monumental challenges” facing the country, including a “weak economy” and millions of unemployed. “I cannot make miracles. Rather, I propose hard work and self-denial,” he said. “A ruler cannot succeed alone . it takes the joint effort of both the ruler and the people.”
He invited other candidates to run in the vote and political parties to participate in subsequent parliamentary elections – though he made no mention of the fate of the Brotherhood. He promised “no alienation, exclusion or discrimination” and “open arms to everybody here or abroad” – except Egyptians indicted by law.
He also vowed to fight “every day” against terrorism and promised to rid Egypt and the region of it.
On the ground there have been no signs of any move toward reconciliation with the Brotherhood.
Authorities on Wednesday announced the latest in a series of mass tribunal of suspected Islamists, putting 919 defendants, including the top leader of the Brotherhood Mohammed Badie, on trial for murder and other charges in connection to violence the past months. Earlier this week, an Egyptian court sentenced to death 528 suspected Morsi supporters over a deadly attack on a police station, capping a swift, two-day mass trial in which defense attorneys were not allowed to present their case.
Morsi supporters have continued near daily protests against el-Sissi and the interim government. On Wednesday, students in several universities, most of them Islamists, held protests that turned into clashes with security forces. An 18-year-old student was killed in the violence at Cairo University, the Health Ministry said.
Many of Egypt’s secular leaning revolutionary youth who were at the forefront of the uprisings against Morsi and Mubarak were largely against a military man for president, fearful of the return of Mubarak ways.
Bassem Sabry, a political commentator and blogger, said he would have preferred to see el-Sissi remain in the military and keep the military out of politics. But from el-Sissi’s speech – mixing common-man and authoritative tones- “it is clear … that the idea of the president as a father figure will remain with us for a while.”
Sabry noted that el-Sissi paid tribute to the people, not the military, as the ones who changed two regimes. “The main question is will he learn the right lessons from these observations or not?”
El-Sissi, the head of military intelligence since 2010, was a little known figure when he was chosen as military chief and defense minister by Morsi. The Islamist leader selected him after removing the Mubarak-era defense minister and other top generals, who held power after Mubarak’s ouster.
Leading Brotherhood figures have since said that they believed el-Sissi was a “pious” Muslim, and some fierce opponents of the Islamists said at the time that they believed el-Sissi was a tool for the Brotherhood.
But during Morsi’s year in office, frictions grew between his administration and the military as protests grew against Morsi and turned into deadly clashes with police. On June 30, millions around the country began a wave of rallies demanding Morsi step down. El-Sissi publicly gave the president a deadline to reconcile with his opponents – and on July 3, troops arrested Morsi. The Islamist leader was held for four months in a secret military detention until finally appearing for the first of a series of trials on charges ranging from inciting violence to terrorism.
Colleagues have spoken of him as a careful listener, and supporters often compare him to Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the charismatic strongman who participated in the 1952 army coup that removed the monarchy and who later became president.
Supporters also talk of el-Sissi’s youthful looks and energy – footage of him jogging with troops regularly plays on TV – as well as the emotional catchphrases unusual for a military man that he often drops into speeches.
“Don’t you know that you are the light of our eyes?” he said in one address to the public, using a common Arabic expression of love. “Egypt is the mother of the world and will be as great as the world,” he often says to assure people that better days are to come.
El-Sissi comes from a humble background, born in the ancient Cairo district of el-Gamaliya, famed for its historic mosques and a backdrop for many of the novels of Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz. Neighbors there remember him as a quiet child who mostly studied and helped his father in his shop selling souvenirs to tourists.
El-Sissi also studied at the U.S. War College in the early 2000s and wrote a thesis about the potential for democracy in the Middle East.
Little is known about his private life, other than that he is married with four children. His wife, Intissar, made her first appearance in public only last month – and her emergence was widely seen as a signal of el-Sissi’s plans to run.