Egypt's military backs strongman for presidency: Back to the future?

CAIRO, Jan. 28 (UPI) -- Egypt's army chief, newly promoted Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, is expected to run for president of the Arab world's most populated nation, heightening concerns the military seeks to restore the security state overthrown in a pro-democracy uprising in February 2011.

Sisi headed the military coup that toppled Egypt's first freely elected president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, July 3 with the support of most of the country's 82 million population who feared Islamist rule.


The generals who have run the country since Morsi's ouster gave Sisi, a 59-year-old former intelligence officer who currently serves as defense minister, their blessing to run for president by promoting him following the overwhelming approval of a new constitution, drafted by a military-appointed committee, in a national referendum.

"The new constitution embeds the powers and ring-fences the privileges of the military, alongside new laws that curtail essential freedoms such as assembly and expression," observed Beirut-based Middle East analyst David Gardner.


"Was this what the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square fought for during the high spring of the Arab Awakening -- to reconsecrate the police state?

"It is not for nothing that the first Arab leaders to applaud the coup in Egypt were King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy legitimized by Wahhabi clerical absolutists, and [Syrian President] Bashar Assad, a tyrant willing to destroy his country to cling to power," Gardner noted.

For weeks, Sisi has been dropping hints he is prepared to run for president.

But the January endorsement of the new constitution and his elevation to field marshal, a promotion that usually signals the resignation of a senior officer, further indicated his intention to run in an election that will probably be held in March.

Just hours later, in what appeared to be a carefully choreographed set of moves, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces gave him the go-ahead to run. He thanked the military leadership for allowing him "the right to respond to the call of duty."

The charismatic, square-jawed Sisi, who spent 2005-2006 at the U.S. Army 's War College, holds a formidable advantage regardless of who runs against him, the U.S. global security consultancy Stratfor notes.


Since booting out Morsi, Sisi's become a national idol to the majority of his countrymen and observers say he's assumed the mantle of the late Gamal Abdel Nasser, the towering figure of pan-Arab nationalism who established the pattern of military rule in Egypt.

The dapper Sisi has amassed a cult-like national following among Egyptians desperate for stability and prosperity after three years of political upheaval that was triggered with the fall of the dictatorial President Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 11, 2011, in the early throes of what became known as the Arab Spring.

But under military rule, which has outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood as it was under Mubarak, Egypt has been gripped by a worsening Islamist insurgency.

This has brought a heavy-handed military crackdown. Scores of Islamists and others protesting army rule have been killed, while al-Qaida's insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula east of the Suez Canal has spread to the Nile Delta, Egypt's heartland.

More than 50 people were killed in nationwide street protests on Jan. 25, third anniversary of the start of the 2011 revolt. Hundreds have been killed since August.

On Jan. 24, there were four bombings in and around Cairo, including a car bomb outside the Cairo Security Directorate that killed four people and wounded 50.


The attacks marked "a significant escalation in militant capabilities," Stratfor observed, amid a steady flow of weapons smuggled from neighboring Libya.

In Sinai Monday, Islamist militants shot down an army helicopter, reportedly with a surface-to-air missile.

On Tuesday, Gen. Mohammed Said, a top Interior Ministry official, was shot dead in Cairo. His chief, Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim, survived an assassination bid in September. Both attacks were claimed by jihadist groups.

"At this time, militants in Egypt cannot derail the election ... that is likely to see Sisi win the presidency," Stratfor observed.

"But despite its probable victory in this election cycle, Egypt's military and security forces will struggle against an expanding and increasingly sophisticated jihadist insurgency spreading to mainland Egypt.

"The frequency and size of the attacks probably will steadily increase. Should the groups begin to strike with more coordination, the already tenuous state of security in Egypt will decline even further."

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