, CAIRO, Jan 28 – Cairo — Egypt’s top military body Monday backed its commander Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to run for the presidency, which he is assured to win after ousting the democratically elected leader in July.
Sisi, wildly popular for overthrowing Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, is now expected to resign as army chief and put himself forward as a candidate in the election scheduled to be held by mid-April.
The army’s announcement came after a weekend in which dozens were killed in street clashes between Morsi’s supporters and police and militant attacks, underscoring the difficulties Sisi will face.
It comes nearly seven months after the army overthrew Morsi on July 3 following mass protests demanding the resignation of Egypt’s first civilian president who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood movement.
A victory for the 59-year-old Sisi, who will have to give up his military uniform to stand for election, would continue a tradition of Egyptian presidents drawn from the armed forces.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces said “the people’s trust in Sisi is a call that must be heeded as the free choice of the people”.
The statement said Sisi thanked the military leadership for allowing him “the right to respond to the call of duty”.
Washington deflected questions about Sisi’s plans, but White House spokesman Jay Carney stressed it was important to maintain “checks and balances” between the military and government.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said $1.5 billion in US aid that was frozen after Morsi’s ouster remained on hold.
To his supporters, Sisi is the best option for ending three years of instability following the 2011 uprising that ended the presidency of Hosni Mubarak, another former military officer.
“Two years ago I was the first one to say down with military rule. I even had it as a ringtone on my cellphone,” said Ibrahim Mohamed, a history teacher.
“But today, after what we saw with Morsi and the Brotherhood, the country needs a military man,” he said.
On Saturday, thousands poured into Cairo’s Tahrir Square to back Sisi’s candidacy, after he said he required “public demand” to stand in the election.
Elsewhere that day, at least 49 people were killed as police clamped down on protests by Morsi’s supporters and anti-military activists.
The violence showed how bitterly polarised the country is. More than 1,000 people, mostly Islamists have been killed in street clashes, and thousands imprisoned, since Morsi’s overthrow.
And a militant insurgency in Sinai appears to have spiralled out of control, as jihadists downed a military helicopter in the peninsula and set off bombs in Cairo at the weekend.
A senior military official told AFP Sisi would step down from his command within days and run in the election.
“He will then sit down, study a programme” to implement after he wins the election, the general said.
Sisi “wants to unite the people, restore security and Egypt’s international standing,” he said.
Egyptians want ‘strong man’
Sisi’s aides have said he hesitated before choosing to run for president because he wanted to be sure he would be an effective leader.
Hours before the army’s announcement, interim president Adly Mansour, whom Sisi had appointed to replace Morsi, promoted the army chief to the top rank of field marshal.
Although easily the most popular leader in Egypt presently, Sisi’s bid will draw opposition not only from most Islamists but also some liberals.
“I would have preferred a presidential election comprising civilian candidates to install a civilian democracy,” said Alfred Raouf of the liberal Al-Dostour party.
“But I can understand that people want Sisi to be candidate, as given their security fears they want a strong man” to head the country.
Sisi, if he stands and wins, could influence the outcome of parliamentary elections by forming a party that would attract leading candidates, analysts said.
“There are no doubts that the (new) president will announce his preferences and his political tendencies,” said Gamal Abdel Gawad Soltan of the American University in Cairo.
“The political currents which the (new) president says are closer to him will benefit from it.”
But the general, accused by Morsi supporters of carrying out a coup, faces a determined opposition and a semi-insurgency.
Militants in Sinai blew up a pipeline supplying gas to Jordan Monday. Officials said there were no immediate reports of injuries but witnesses saw ambulances rushed to the scene.
Five soldiers were killed Saturday when a military helicopter was shot down with a surface-to-air missile, an unprecedented attack claimed by Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (Partisans of Jerusalem).
The Al-Qaeda-inspired group also claimed responsibility for a car bombing Friday outside police headquarters in Cairo that killed four people.
The interim-backed authorities have lumped in Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood movement, which renounced violence decades ago, with the Sinai-based jihadists.
The Brotherhood, now blacklisted as a terrorist group, has called for further protests in the coming days.