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Egypt's army chief rules out presidential run, but the choice may not be his

General El Sisi's popularity is rooted in the relief felt by many Egyptians that the army removed Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood from power.

CAIRO // Egypt’s military chief Gen Abdel Fattah El Sisi has ruled out a presidential run, but at the end of a day he may not have a choice.

In the almost three months since the armed forces removed Islamist president Mohammed Morsi, supported by millions of Egyptians, Gen El Sisi, 58, has built on the popularity he gained after becoming defence minister in August last year.

Egyptians have plastered tens of thousands of El Sisi posters on walls and homes across the country. Some of these proclaim him as the “lion of the nation”.

A big part of Gen El Sisi’s popularity is rooted in the relief felt by many Egyptians that the army removed Mr Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, of which the president was a member. Many opposed the Brotherhood’s bid to monopolise power.
Gen El Sisi moved against Mr Morsi’s government after four days of mass protests.

His popularity was highlighted on July 26, when millions again hit the streets after his request that they give him a mandate to deal with “violence and potential terrorism”.

That proved crucial when police, backed by army troops, stormed two sit-in protests held by Morsi supporters in Cairo on August 14.

The simultaneous operations killed hundreds of Morsi loyalists, but Gen El Sisi’s popularity appears not to have suffered.

Already, he is widely credited for restoring much of the prestige and aura of invincibility the military has enjoyed in the eyes of Egyptians since the 1952 coup by young army officers who later toppled the monarchy.

That coup laid the foundation for indirect military rule lasting six decades, with all of the country’s presidents, save for Mr Morsi, since having a military background.

A strong bond has been forged during those years between Egyptians and their military. As a mostly conscripted army, there is hardly a family that has not sent a son to the military, which fought four wars with Israel between 1948 and 1973.

The bond has survived among much of the public, despite the criticism the military faced in the almost 17 months it spent in power after Hosni Mubarak’s fall, and until Mr Morsi took office in June last year.

That period dented the image of the generals, who faced anti-military protests in the streets and accusations of abuse by their troops.

But after a year of Islamist rule defined by political turmoil, divisions, crime and a rapidly worsening economy, Egyptians were desperately looking for a safe pair of hands or an institution they could trust their lives with.

They had experienced that same sentiment on the eve of Mr Morsi’s inauguration on June 30 last year after the unrest that followed Mr Mubarak’s removal from power in a popular uprising.

Combined, those two periods of instability created a huge appetite for someone like Gen El Sisi, whose smile, youthful looks and energy gave him a charisma only previously enjoyed by Gamal Abdel Nasser, the president who died in 1970 after ruling Egypt for 18 years.

The state media raises parallels between the two, but comparisons with Nasser worry some Egyptians.

He was the mastermind of the 1952 coup. As president, he was lionised for nationalising the Suez Canal in 1956, negotiating the withdrawal of occupying British forces, dismantling the feudal agricultural system and introducing free education. Millions took part in his 1970 funeral.

Since his death, many have acknowledged his faults: his rule was oppressive against secular and Islamist dissidents, and the state-run system he created became riddled with corruption. But there is also nostalgia.

Gen El Sisi, however, appears determined to establish a democratic system in which freedoms are guaranteed.
He has shown no political agenda of his own and has enlisted the support of all political groups, save for the Brotherhood and its Islamist allies, and the nation’s top clerics.

His faith in the future has captivated many from months before he removed Mr Morsi.

“I want to say something to you: don’t ever worry about Egypt,” Gen El Sisi said in April. “Egyptians can change the whole world when they want.”

foreign.desk@thenational.ae