Egypt's army chief expected to resign, paving way for presidential campaign
Egypt's army chief will resign from the armed forces on Wednesday, two senior military sources have confirmed, paving the way for a long-awaited presidential campaign and a return to strongman leadership for Egypt.
Sisi has been spoken of as a potential head of state since he removed Mohamed Morsi from the presidency last July, following days of mass protests against Morsi's Islamist-slanted government. But while his candidacy has been an , Sisi himself gave few definitive signals of his intentions.
That appeared to change on Wednesday – three years and two months after the fall of Egypt's last ex-military strongman, Hosni Mubarak – when Egypt's main state-run news website said Sisi would resign from the army by the end of day, allowing him to run for elected office. Two senior military sources later confirmed the news to the Guardian.
"Today we will have a meeting for SCAF [the army's governing council] – and after that he will resign," said one high-ranking officer. "After that he will be a civilian, and after that he will be able to announce his campaign."
Sisi is widely expected to win any presidential election by a landslide, as many see him as the only candidate with the authority to control a country racked by three years of post-revolutionary turmoil. He has a , ranging from wealthy businessmen – who have paid for his face to be displayed on vast hoardings across Cairo – to working-class shopkeepers, who place his photograph in shop-windows. To many, Sisi represents a bulwark against Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, who are instinctively blamed for any outburst of violence.
But support for Sisi is by no means universal. Supporters of the Brotherhood detest him for leading a crackdown on dissent that has seen at least 16,000 people jailed since July, and more than a thousand killed. A small group of secular liberals, who are now also victims of the state crackdown, also want the army out of politics. Thousands of students at Cairo University chanted against military rule on Wednesday afternoon, as news of Sisi's resignation began to trickle through.
In a referendum in January, which was seen as a poll on Sisi himself, more than 98% said yes to the new constitution. But only 38.6% of the electorate took part, fewer than Sisi would have hoped.
The experience of the referendum has led rights activists to fear that the presidential elections may not be free or fair. Several campaigners against the constitution were arrested for putting up posters, leading many to fear a repeat scenario in the presidential poll.
Only one other serious candidate – the workers' favourite Hamdeen Sabbahi – has declared his candidacy, and a senior army officer told the Guardian that the campaign would be without irregularities: "[Sisi] is very happy for other people to run. It's not going to be a race without other candidates."
But three leading candidates from the 2012 elections have already withdrawn from this year's race, warning that the election will be a sham.
"I won't take part in deceiving people into believing we have a democratic path when we don't," one of the withdrawn candidates, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, .
Sisi risks his popularity plummeting once he becomes president, analysts argue, are so intractable that they cannot be easily solved.
HA Hellyer, Egypt analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, said: "A Sisi presidency is going to face the key structural problems endemic in as [the country's head of state from 2011 to 2012 Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein] Tantawi, Mubarak and Morsi did. He actually has a worse situation to deal with, considering the security threats, and the counterproductive efforts of the Egyptian state in facing all those problems. No one quite knows how he intends to address those problems – or even if he will try with any degree of success. Some of those answers may become more evident as his team members become clear in the short-lived presidential campaign – but no one should be optimistic in any real progress any time soon."
Analysts also say it remains to be seen how authoritarian a Sisi presidency will be, as it is currently unlikely that he is directly co-ordinating Egypt's crackdown on dissent. "So the real test comes post-election," Michael Hanna, an analyst of Egyptian politics, this week. "Will a President Sisi – with the backing of the military, and with what he would consider a popular mandate – then decide he can make decisions?"