Egypt’s de facto strongman, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, resigned Wednesday from the military and announced his long-anticipated run for the presidency in an impassioned national address in which he called for his embattled nation to once again become a strong, regional power.
El-Sissi, who as the top general in his country’s military led the July 3 ouster of President Mohammed Morsi and then named the transitional government that has ruled since, is all but certain to win the still unscheduled presidential election. Public opinion surveys show he is the country’s most revered political figure. Under Egypt’s constitution, military officers cannot run for office.
Wearing his military uniform, he said, “for the last time” and sitting at a desk, el-Sissi, whose last rank was field marshal, also resigned as defense minster.
Speaking in colloquial Arabic, understood by all Egyptians, regardless of education, his 15-minute speech was ripe with nationalistic language, a reprieve from the divisive, polarized rhetoric that has defined Egypt since Morsi’s ouster. In subsequent violence and government crackdowns, hundreds of people have been killed and at least 16,000 arrested.
“With all due modesty, I announce my intention to run for presidency,” el-Sissi said. “I stand in front of you now to give you a speech from the heart.”
El-Sissi’s speech seemed aimed at smoothing over the sharp divisions that have reigned here between supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, the secretive organization that carried Morsi to the presidency in the country’s first democratic presidential election, and the vast number of Egyptians who last summer clamored for Morsi’s ouster.
He called for reconciliation for Islamists who have not been charged with crimes, even as he spoke of the country’s continuing terrorism problem _ a hardly veiled reference to the Brotherhood, which has been outlawed.
“No exclusions, no polarization,” he said. “I extend my hand to all at home and abroad, all those who have not been convicted.”
He repeated three main points: the nation must create more jobs, it must improve its security and it must remember the importance of hope.
“I stand in front of you with all hope in your strong will to push the country back to the place it deserves,” el-Sissi said.
At times, el-Sissi sought to present himself like Egypt’s second and most celebrated military leader after the end of British rule in 1952, Col. Gamel Abdel Nasser, who elevated Egypt to a key state in the Arab world. El-Sissi said he hoped to “conquer terrorism, not only in Egypt but the region.” And he, like Nasser, also rejected foreign intervention.
“Egypt is not a playground for any internal, regional or international party and will never be,” he said.
El-Sissi said he would not spend an excessive amount on his campaign, saying it would not be appropriate, given Egypt’s economic troubles. But it was clear he would not have to. Just minutes after his speech ended at 10 p.m., state television began showing documentaries celebrating his military career and contributions to the state, often with nationalist songs playing over images of el-Sissi and the nation’s revered military forces.
El-Sissi repeatedly tried to downplay the idea that the military has controlled Egypt for more than six decades, even though, with the exception of Morsi, all of Egypt’s presidents since Nasser have been retired military officers.
“It was neither the military nor political forces that got rid of the two former regimes,” he said, referring to Morsi’s ouster and the forced resignation after 18 days of demonstrations of President Hosni Mubarak. “It was the people.”
El-Sissi’s rapid rise to power flowed from Mubarak’s ouster in 2011.
Now 59, el-Sissi graduated from the Egyptian Military Academy in 1977 and joined the infantry. But he had little combat experience during his career. Instead, he served in posts such as military attache in Saudi Arabia and chief-of-staff and then commander of Egypt's Northern Military Zone. In 2006, he studied at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., where he wrote a paper titled “Democracy in the Middle East,” in which he argued that the United States’ wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had undermined the likelihood of democracy taking root in the region.
In the last months of Mubarak’s three-decade tenure, el-Sissi was head of military intelligence and reconnaissance. He stayed in that post during the military’s first rule of the country immediately after Mubarak’s fall.
In 2011, he became a controversial figure when he defended the military practice of virginity tests, saying they protected the woman and the soldier from false accusations. But he remained largely obscure until Morsi named him defense minister in August 2012. Less than a year later, he engineered Morsi’s ouster.
From that moment on, he became a national presidential candidate front-runner and in the last few weeks signaled his intention to run. Earlier this month, he reshuffled key military positions, in what many said was an effort to lay the ground for his future administration.
The nation reacted with jubilation to his announcement, with supporters taking to the streets to celebrate. But it remains to be seen if el-Sissi can bridge the tensions that have dominated since Morsi’s ouster. The government, with el-Sissi’s blessing, has carried out a brutal crackdown on Morsi’s supporters, jailed most of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, and replaced a Morsi-backed constitution with a new one.
An el-Sissi presidency will face a series of seemingly intractable problems. The nation’s economy is in a free fall, with instability all but ending the tourism industry, once responsible for as many as a quarter of all jobs here. The nation’s aggressive campaign against Islamists, including a military campaign in the Sinai, has created a new generation of budding insurgents, and assassinations of police have become an almost daily occurrence. Violent protests are common; earlier Wednesday a student died during protests at Cairo University.
Many also view skeptically the likelihood that the presidential elections will be fair, noting that el-Sissi ousted the first democratically elected leader in his country’s history.
When those elections will be held was still uncertain. El-Sissi said only that voting for president will come before an election to choose a parliament, and the country’s interim president, Adly Mansour, said the presidential balloting will take place before mid-July. Presidential candidates can begin formally submitting their names Sunday. So far only one person other than el-Sissi, longtime opposition leader Hamdeen Sabahi, has announced his intention to run.
Mansour named 1st Lt. Gen. Sedki Sobhi, el-Sissi’s deputy, as the new head of the armed forces.
“I can’t perform miracles but what I can promise is hard and selfless work if I am given the honor or leading,” el-Sissi said.
Special correspondent Amina Ismail contributed to this report.