CAIRO (AP) — Army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who led the coup ousting Egypt's Islamist president, moved closer to declaring his candidacy to replace him, securing the military's backing on Monday for a presidential run, due by the end of April.
Though he's riding on a wave of nationalist fervor touting him as the nation's savior to bring stability, his candidacy is certain to enflame a violent backlash from Islamists.
A run by the 59-year-old el-Sissi, a U.S.-trained infantry officer, would be a new twist in Egypt's tumultuous transition, which began with 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.
The elections that followed were the country's first democratic vote and brought the Islamists to power, installing Muslim Brotherhood figure Mohammed Morsi as president, only for a large portion of the population to turn against them, accusing the Brotherhood of trying to monopolize power. Massive protests prompted el-Sissi to depose Morsi on July 3.
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 el-Sissi's call to take to the street in rallies to "delegate" him to fight terrorism. Police have since waged a fierce crackdown on the Brotherhood, killing hundreds of supporters and arresting thousands more. 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.
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.
"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.
The fragile security situation only feeds into many Egyptians' need for a strong man who can restore stability. 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.
But Fawzy predicted it also would likely provoke a backlash by Islamists.
"There is a personal vendetta between el-Sissi and Islamists. No doubt violence will only increase under el-Sissi," Fawzy said.
While el-Sissi is 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 el-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 Gen. el-Sissi for the presidency, and considers it an assignment and commitment."
While the generals were holding their 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 Mubarak and who then stepped in as military ruler for nearly 17 months after Mubarak's ouster. After Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president, was inaugurated in 2012, he removed Tantawi and installed el-Sissi.
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.
In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney said that only the people of Egypt could decide the next steps for their transition process, which was transpiring in a security environment that has been difficult harmful for everyone.
"It is the responsibility of any government to exercise restraint and to do its utmost to safeguard human rights and civil liberties, even when confronted with violence," he told reporters at a regular news briefing.
El-Sissi's new title came one day after 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.
It followed a day of striking contrast on Jan. 25 when Egyptians marked the spark of the 2011 revolution.
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 and arrested secular-leaning activists who tried to stage a demonstration voicing opposition to both the military and the Islamists.
Islamist opponents describe the coup as treason and brand el-Sissi a murderer. They tried to cast him 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.
On Monday, a figure seen as one of 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.
Associated Press Correspondent Julie Pace contributed from Washington