CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's top generals on Monday endorsed a presidential run by army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the state news agency said, paving the way for the man who ousted the country's Islamist president to enter elections to replace him at the head of a violently divided nation.
The official news agency MENA said el-Sissi could officially announce his intention to run "within hours."
If el-Sissi runs in the elections due by the end of April, he would likely 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.
A run by the 59-year-old el-Sissi, a U.S.-trained infantry officer, would be a new turn in Egypt's turmoil, which began with the 2011 uprising that ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak — a veteran of the military who ruled for nearly 30 years — in the name of bringing civilian rule, reform and greater democracy. The country's freest elections ever that followed brought to power the Islamists, installing Muslim Brotherhood figure Mohammed Morsi as president, only for a large portion of the population to turn against him, accusing the Brotherhood of trying to monopolize power. Massive protests prompted el-Sissi to depose Morsi on July 3.
Little known before Morsi named him defense minister and army chief, el-Sissi rocketed after the coup to become Egypt's most powerful figure, lauded by supporters as the nation's savior.
On Saturday, large crowds turned out in rallies calling for el-Sissi to run, in a show heavily orchestrated by military supporters, particularly a new political grouping called "Masr Balady" or "Egypt is My Country," which brings together prominent security figures, including a former interior minister and senior Muslim cleric Ali Gomaa.
At the same time, security forces cracked down on Islamist protesters demanding Morsi's reinstatement in fighting that killed nearly 50 protesters — a sign of the violent divisions in the country.
Islamist opponents describe the coup as treason and brand el-Sissi a murderer. They tried to cast el-Sissi as a ruthless dictator, an enemy of Islam or an agent of America and Israel.
In a statement Sunday, a Brotherhood-led Islamist alliance said the chants from its protests showed "the people want the execution of the murderer, not (that) the people want to appoint the murderer as president."
It called for more protests Tuesday, which is the anniversary of the Jan. 28, 2011 "Day of Rage," one of the most violent days of anti-Mubarak uprising in which police forces virtually collapsed in fighting with protesters. Tuesday also brings the opening session of a new trial of Morsi and 130 others in connection to a 2011 jailbreak.
Since Morsi's ouster, Egypt has seen a wave of pro-military nationalist fervor and a return to prominence of security agencies that under Mubarak — and even after — were widely hated for abuses of power. Soon after the coup, el-Sissi called on Egyptians to take to the street in rallies to "delegate" him to fight terrorism. Millions turned out in rallies, and police have since waged a fierce crackdown on the Brotherhood, arresting thousands of members and killing hundreds.
The heavy-handed 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.
On Monday, a figure seen as one in the few in the Cabinet who have tried to limit the crackdown and promote reconciliation with Islamists, Deputy Prime Minister Ziad Bahaa-Eldin , submitted his resignation. On his Facebook page, Bahaa-Eldin said he wanted to focus on work with his political party, the Social Democratic Party, and that he had not done so sooner because he wanted to "avoid divisions" before the approval of a new constitution in a referendum earlier this month.
The military's top body of generals, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, held an hours-long meeting Monday to discuss a possible el-Sissi candidacy.
During the meeting, interim President Adly Mansour announced el-Sissi's promotion from general to field marshal — the military's top rank — apparently as a final honor before he leaves the military.
The promotion gives el-Sissi the same rank held by his predecessor, Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, who was army chief and defense minister for years under former President Hosni Mubarak and who then stepped in as military ruler for nearly 17 months after Mubarak's ouster in the 2011 uprising. After Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president, was inaugurated in 2012, he removed Tantawi and installed el-Sissi.
Hours later, MENA reported that the Supreme Council unanimously "endorsed" el-Sissi to run for president.
The state-run Al-Ahram newspaper said the council also named Chief of Staff Sedki Sobhi to replace el-Sissi as army chief and defense minister when he steps down. Under the new constitution, the president must have SCAF's endorsement to fill the defense minister-army chief post, meaning the military effectively names its own chief.
With the exception of Morsi, who held office for a year, Egypt has been ruled by men of military background since the overthrow of the monarchy in a coup some 60 years ago.
An el-Sissi presidency would continue that trend.
A day earlier, interim President Mansour announced that presidential elections would be held first, followed by parliamentary elections, switching the order first laid out in a transition plan put forward by the military after Morsi's ouster.
The presidential election is now expected before the end of April, while a parliamentary vote should come before the end of July.
The move is seen as aimed at putting a stabilizing figure in the top position at a time of deep uncertainty.
Since Morsi's ouster, Islamic militants have dramatically escalated an insurgency, attacking police and military with bombings and shootings that have spread from the Sinai Peninsula to the capital, Egypt, and increasingly strike in public areas taking civilian casualties.
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.