Egyptian army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who led the coup ousting former president Mohamed Morsi, secured the backing of the country’s generals Monday for a presidential run in April — a move that paves the way for the military to once again have one of its own as head of state.
But observers question why the military, which has historically ruled the country from behind the scenes, would want to open itself up to criticism by assuming such a public role.
A run by 59-year-old Sissi, a U.S.-trained infantry officer, would be a new twist in Egypt's tumultuous transition, which began with the 2011 revolt against autocratic President Hosni Mubarak — a veteran of the military who ruled for nearly 30 years — in the name of bringing civilian rule, reform and greater democracy to the nation.
The 2012 elections were the country's first democratic vote. It brought Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood figure, to power as president, only for a large portion of the population to turn against the political party, accusing the Brotherhood of trying to monopolize control. Massive protests prompted Sisi to depose Morsi on July 3.
But while Sissi is riding on a wave of populist support touting him as the nation's best hope for stability, his candidacy could spark a violent backlash from opponents of the military, particularly supporters of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood and more hardline Islamist groups who oppose the country's secular authoritarian leadership.
His seeming intent on ascending to the presidency also has many scratching their heads as to why the military would be positioning itself to return one of its own to political power given its difficulties when it most recently ran the country without a state figurehead shielding it from criticism.
Mohammed Hussein Tantawi was army chief and defense minister for years under Mubarak, then stepped in as military ruler for nearly 17 months after Mubarak's ouster and until Morsi's election.
In that period, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the group of military officers leading the country with Tantawi at its helm, remained the most powerful force in the country but found itself the target of a sometimes dissatisfied populace, causing headaches for the powerful institution which, according to many experts, had initially hoped to let others do the official governing while it kept ahold of its powerful position in society.
Now the military is indicating that it has interest in again having a more public role in the actual governing process.
“The difference now is overwhelming popular support,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation.
“They are carried away with the moment,” he said, before adding, “Objectively, it’s a very bad decision for Sissi and the military.”
He noted that the only setback that the military has suffered in the post-Mubarak era was under Tantawi’s leadership, when they were seen as the face of political stasis and corruption rather than as the relief from such ills.
“They have the sense that there are no other options ... They just have to take matters into their own hands,” he said.
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, millions of Egyptians answered Sisi's call to take to the street in rallies to “delegate” him to fight “terrorism.” Police have since cracked down on the Brotherhood, killing hundreds of supporters and arresting thousands more. The government recently branded the Brotherhood a “terrorist organization,” accusing it of orchestrating the violence. The group denies the charge, saying the military is just trying to justify the repression.
The heavy-handed security crackdown also targeted secular-leaning activists and youth leaders as part of a wave of intimidation, sparking fears among some of a return to a Mubarak-style police state.
"It will more or less be a one-man show," said Ahmed Fawzi, the secretary general of the Social Democratic party, part of the liberal alliance that supported Morsi's ouster, but who now fears a return to autocratic rule.
The fragile security situation only feeds into many Egyptians' desire for a strong leader who can restore stability. If 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 by Egypt's media and the pervasive intimidation of critics.
While Sissi has yet to make a final announcement, the military's top body of generals, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, endorsed the idea after an hours-long meeting Monday to discuss Sissi's candidacy, according to military spokesman Col. Ahmed Mohammed Ali.
In an audio statement, the council said it was the majority's will.
“The council cannot but look with respect and homage to the desire of the wide masses of the great Egyptian people to nominate General Sissi for the presidency, and considers it an assignment and commitment.”
With the exception of Morsi, who held office for only a year, Egypt has been ruled by men of military background since the overthrow of the monarchy in a coup some 60 years ago.
Al Jazeera and the Associated Press. With additional reporting by Tom Kutsch.