CAIRO (AP) — A group of professionals and former army officers launched Monday a petition urging Egypt's military chief, who ousted the country's first freely elected leader, to run for president, highlighting the yearning for a strongman to take charge after nearly three years of turmoil.
The campaign for Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is propped up by a pervasive personality cult, based on his success in uprooting an Islamist ruling elite. Still, there has been a faint pushback from new political groups calling for a civilian leader for the nascent democracy —despite little public tolerance for criticism of the military and a deepening sense of nationalism.
In his one major political speech after removing Islamist President Mohammed Morsi on July 3, el-Sissi said he had no political aspirations. Soon after, a military spokesman denied reports the general would run for office. But the spokesman added that nothing would stop el-Sissi from doing so if he retired.
The clamor for him to run in presidential elections expected in early 2014 has only grown, demonstrating the dramatic seesawing Egypt has undergone since the 2011 revolution toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak, a former military man. In part the calls are fueled by a powerful anti-Islamist fervor after Morsi's one year in office, when bitterness grew over what many saw as attempts by his Muslim Brotherhood to monopolize power and take the country in a more extremist direction.
State media and sympathetic television stations have helped fan the el-Sissi sentiment. Pop songs praising him and the military flood the airwaves. Posters of el-Sissi in his dark glasses and military cap are plastered around the streets. Videos of him addressing troops or training with them have become a staple on TV.
In the upscale Cairo district of Garden City, sweets shop owner Bahira Galal says she has been doing a brisk business with her new chocolates bearing el-Sissi's picture.
"I support el-Sissi in my own way, especially after millions went out in the streets, everyone in their own way, supporting him," she said.
Millions turned out for protests that began June 30 demanding Morsi's removal, prompting el-Sissi to oust the Islamist leader. Morsi's supporters have continued protests demanding his reinstatement, even as a security crackdown has jailed thousands of Islamists. Detained since his ouster, Morsi faces trial on charges of inciting the killing of protesters, and prosecutors are preparing other charges, including insulting the judiciary.
El-Sissi has said he was only acting in response to the people's demands, dismissing charges of orchestrating a coup. El-Sissi installed an interim, civilian government that is paving the way for elections.
El-Sissi has cultivated a popular image for himself — that of a strongman who acted to save the nation and, at the same time, a soft-spoken figure with the interests of the people at heart. That has helped restore the prestige of the military after the much criticized period when generals held direct power for more than a year and a half after Mubarak's fall. Those generals came from an older generation than el-Sissi and have since been shunted aside.
The new petition campaign announced Monday brands itself "complete your good deed" — urging el-Sissi to take the next step and run. Organizer Rifai Nasrallah, a judge, said the goal was to collect 30 million signatures to convince the general to give in to "popular will."
"Don't forget that you told the Egyptian people to ask and you will respond. Here we are asking you to be president of Egypt," Nasrallah said at the launch gathering at a Cairo hotel, addressing el-Sissi.
The campaign is modeled after Tamarod, or Rebel, which spearheaded anti-Morsi protests after claiming to have gathered 22 million signatures demanding his ouster.
Younan Gerges, who is running the campaign in Cairo, denied it is funded by security agencies or the military, or even major businessmen.
Prime-time talk shows constantly discuss the prospect of el-Sissi running — almost always favorably. The three main candidates who lost to Morsi in last year's presidential election — Amr Moussa, Ahmed Shafiq and Hamdeen Sabahi, a favorite with revolutionary youth groups — have publically supported the idea.
Even the ousted Mubarak, who is now on trial on charges of killing protesters, gave an unexpected word of praise.
In a leaked tape recording, Mubarak can be heard answering questions during a physical examination. He says at first he thought el-Sissi — who was appointed defense minister by Morsi — was a Brotherhood sympathizer, but he turned out to be "cunning." The undated recording was posted on the website of the daily Youm 7 newspaper.
Support for a strong leader follows nearly three years of turmoil, with almost daily, often violent protests and an economy in tatters. No potential leader has sprung up from among the youth groups and youth groups and new political parties created after Mubarak's fall to capture popular demands for change.
Abdel-Nabi Abdel-Sattar, a spokesman for the "complete your deed" petition, said that if left to chance, another Islamist may find his way to the post. "El-Sissi for us is a revolutionary symbol, not a military symbol" because of his ability to side with the people and rid it of Morsi, he said.
Meanwhile, the military is actively promoting a friendly image, even with the country under emergency law for more than a month, and a nighttime curfew imposed in many cities.
On Monday night, soldiers in Cairo handed out cards to motorists thanking them for "your cooperation to preserve security and stability." On the back of the card was a picture of a young boy kissing a soldier, while other soldiers search a car at a checkpoint.
There has been little outrage from youth groups or new political parties over the el-Sissi-for-president campaign — only some diplomatically worded pushback.
Khaled Dawoud, spokesman for the liberal party al-Dostor, said "it wouldn't be recommended that (el-Sissi) he run for this position amid allegations that this was a military coup."
"We praised the minister of defense for announcing he plans to play no political role and that he acted on behalf of the people," said Dawoud. Al-Dostor Party was once led by democracy advocate Mohammed ElBaradei, who served briefly as interim vice president after Morsi's ouster but resigned in protest after the breakup of the pro-Morsi sit-ins.
One Cairo resident, Sami Abdullah said a military man running for president will bring Egypt backward.
"People wanted a civilian president, not again (one with a) military background, and have it all as it was before, an iron fist and civilians tried before military tribunals," Abdullah said.
But Gerges, the petition campaign's Cairo manager, says "the revolution was not originally for civilian rule. It was for bread, freedom and social justice."
Gerges, a 29-year old Christian goldsmith, participated in the 2011 uprising and even protested against military rulers during the transition.
"For me, el-Sissi is best fit to fulfill the goals of the revolution... It is not up to him. The people will demand he runs and he will have to oblige."