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Abdel Fatah al-Sisi resigns from Egypt military to run for presidency

Sisi finally confirms long-awaited candidacy – promising ‘stability, safety and hope for Egypt’ – and he is widely expected to win
Patrick Kingsley in Cairo

People walk past a banner for Egypt's Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in downtown Cairo. Photograph: Mohamed Abd El Ghany/REUTERS
People walk past a banner for Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in downtown Cairo. Photograph: Mohamed Abd El Ghany/REUTERS

(theguardian)Egypt’s army chief Abdel Fatah al-Sisi resigned from the military on Wednesday night, paving the way for a long-awaited presidential campaign and a return to strongman leadership for Egypt.

“I am here before you humbly stating my intention to run for the presidency of the Arab Republic of Egypt,” Sisi said in a televised statement, still dressed in military fatigues. “Only your support will grant me this great honour.”

Sisi had been spoken of as a potential head of state after he removed ex-president Mohamed Morsi last July, following days of mass protests against Morsi’s Islamist-slanted government. But while his candidacy has been an open secret for months, Sisi himself had given few definitive signals of his intentions.

That finally changed on Wednesday night – three years and two months after the fall of Egypt’s last ex-military strongman, Hosni Mubarak – as Egypt’s military council, known as Scaf, convened to allow Sisi to resign. Minutes afterwards, shortly before 9:30pm local time, state television broadcast a 13-minute statement recorded earlier in the afternoon.

“If I am granted the honour of the leadership,” Sisi said, “I promise that we together – leadership and people – can achieve stability, safety and hope for Egypt.”

In speech that contained few surprises, the outgoing field marshal warned Egyptians that the country faced a host of economic and political challenges, and asked them for their patience and help in rebuilding the state. He focused on strengthening state institutions and increasing stability – mentioning democracy just once, and with no mention of human rights.

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 wracked by three years of post-revolutionary turmoil. He has a large and often sycophantic following, 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 over 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 January’s constitutional referendum, which was seen as a poll on Sisi himself, over 98% of those who voted said yes to the new constitution, and implicitly for the general too. But only 38.6% of the electorate took part, less than Sisi would have hoped for.

Sameh Seif Elyazal, a retired general expected to form part of Sisi’s campaign, said: “For the majority of Egyptians who were waiting anxiously for this moment, they will be very happy – but I think the Muslim Brotherhood will be very upset and angry.”

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 – a champion of workers’ rights, 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, said in February.

Sisi risks his popularity plummeting once he becomes president, analysts argue, since Egypt’s economic and political challenges 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 Egypt as [the country’s head of state from 2011-2 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 anytime 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 coordinating Egypt’s crackdown on dissent. “So the real test comes post-election,” Michael Hanna, an analyst of Egyptian politics, told the Guardian 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?”

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