Egyptian military endorses Army chief Sisi's presidential run

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has not yet announced his candidacy, but he is expected to win easily, despite deep polarization. He was also promoted today to the Army's highest rank.

Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters
Posters of Egyptian Army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi adorn the walls of an area of Cairo's Gamaliya district, where he spent his childhood, on Jan. 27, 2014. Sisi's popularity has skyrocketed in the months since he deposed former President Mohamed Morsi, and many expect him to easily win a presidential race.

This story was updated at 1:32 p.m. EST.

A presidential bid by Egyptian Army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is all but official today after Egypt's interim president today promoted him to the highest rank in the Army and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces announced that it approved of his expected candidacy.

Field Marshal Sisi's popularity has skyrocketed in the months since he deposed former President Mohamed Morsi, and many expect him to easily win a presidential race. Egyptians have been waiting expectantly for Sisi to announce his candidacy, even as the interim government – which many see as being led by him, despite his role as defense minister – has led a growing crackdown on dissent that prompted domestic and international condemnation.

Sisi's victory would put Egypt's presidency back in the hands of a former military officer just three years after Egyptians rose up against Hosni Mubarak, a former Air Force officer who ruled Egypt for nearly three decades.

The council of military leaders released a statement giving its blessing to Sisi's presidential bid, calling it an "obligation" based on popular demand, just hours after interim President Adly Mansour promoted him to rank of field marshal. On Saturday, the third anniversary of the start of the uprising against Mr. Mubarak, thousands of Egyptians went to the streets to urge Sisi to run for president. Many said he is the only figure capable of leading Egypt amid the current instability, chaos, and violence. At least 64 people were killed Saturday when police crushed antigovernment protests.

A military spokesman promised shortly after last summer's coup that Sisi wouldn't run for president, but later suggested he would if the Army and the "people" gave him a mandate. He may see that in Saturday's protests and the military council's decision today. 

Many Egyptians have elevated Sisi to celebrity status. Chocolate shops sell sweets bearing his likeness, while vendors sell everything from hats to pins to T-shirts plastered with his picture. A massive banner featuring his face hangs from a tower in central Cairo.

But there are many who despise him for his leading role in the crackdown on Morsi supporters after the coup, when security forces killed more than 1,000 protesters. Graffiti calling him a “traitor” and a “killer” is also ubiquitous in Cairo. Egypt has taken a sharply authoritarian turn since July, with activists, protesters, and Muslim Brotherhood members jailed in what rights activists, observers, and many in the international community call an attempt to silence dissent.

A presidential bid by a figure so hated, even if by only a small portion of the population, may not help Egypt's democratic process or stability, says H.A. Hellyer, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution. “There are grievances and there are fault lines, so my priority would be to figure out how you get to the next stage that at least lessens the polarization and increases the chance for bringing people with very disparate viewpoints together,” he says. “And I just don't think that him running helps that.”

Mr. Hellyer says Sisi's promotion today signaled a “going away present” and the Army's backing of his turn to politics. 

Gen. Sameh Seif el-Yazal, a retired Army officer perceived as close to Egypt's military leaders, said Sisi's promotion was expected because the commander of the Army in Egypt typically holds that rank. Sisi has been Army chief since Mr. Morsi forced the previous commander, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawy, into retirement in 2012.

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