Is Egypt's defence minister El Sisi its president in waiting?
CAIRO // Few have emerged from the tumultuous events of the past 18 days as strong as General Abdel Fattah El Sisi, the Egyptian minister of defence who deftly presided over the removal of Mohammed Morsi from the presidency.
Despite people's deep misgivings about the military's role in politics created by the previous army chief, Gen El Sisi has so far managed to avoid becoming a target of criticism from a large swathe of society.
So much has Gen El Sisi's star risen in recent days that the military's spokesman has had to repeatedly deny his boss was planning to run for president. Rumours of Gen Al Sisi's imminent incumbency were fuelled by intense dsiplays of patriotism across Egypt since he announced on July 3 that Mr Morsi had been deposed.
Outside the presidential palace in Cairo, vendors sell laminated pictures of his smiling face, and he has been heralded by many opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood as a national saviour. Fighter jets roaring over the capital, leaving heart-shaped smoke trails, have been met with cheers by many Egyptians longing for an end to the instability and divisiveness that have rocked the country for more than two years.
Gen El Sisi may never seek higher office, but political analysts say that Egypt's charged political atmosphere may pave the way for a "strong man" candidate winning the presidential elections tentatively scheduled for early next year.
With many Egyptians embracing the military's move against Mr Morsi and fears still running high that the victory could be hijacked by Islamists angry at having power ripped from their grasp, a former military officer could be a persuasive option.
Tarek Masoud, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard University's John F Kennedy School of Government, said he believed Egypt's next president could likely come from "the officer corps".
"Someone like [Lt Gen Sami] Anan or [Gen] El Sisi has the national reputation necessary to wage a presidential campaign and there would likely be lots of businessmen who would fund such a presidential campaign," he said.
Mr Masoud said the military had a "direct interest" in preserving its place in the Egyptian firmament of power and protecting its interests from civilian oversight.
The military's efforts to maintain control over its small fiefdom of businesses and prevent more stringent oversight of its budget have been an important issue in Egyptian politics since Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign as president in 2011. Liberals and Islamists alike criticised the military's opacity throughout 2011 and 2012.
In the months after Mubarak's resignation, the reputation of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), the group of generals who ran the country before Mr Morsi was elected, was hit by revelations that army officers conducted "virginity checks" on female protesters during the 2011 uprising. They were also filmed stripping a female protester of her abaya and throwing rocks from rooftops on protesters during protests in early 2012.
So low had estimation of Scaf fallen by the time Mr Morsi assumed the presidency that few voiced discontent when he forced many of the generals who were part of the council to retire in August 2012, a little more than a month after his inauguration.
The mistakes of the council were important lessons for Gen El Sisi, who was one of its most junior members until Mr Morsi promoted him last year.
When Mubarak resigned, the military took full power for itself and, along with it, responsibility for all the country's failures during the one-and-a-half-year transition period. By contrast, Gen El Sisi announced the end of Mr Morsi's presidency in a press conference that included religious leaders, political party representatives and youth activists. Instead of taking power himself, he ordered the formation of an interim government and appointed Adly Mansour, the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, as president.
"The military of 2011 wasn't nearly as strong as it is now," said Joshua Stacher, a political scientist at Kent State University who is studying Egypt's political transition. "The 2013 military is far more organised and prepared. Gen Al Sisi has shown himself to be a shrewd political operator. What we are seeing is the outgrowth of the military power bump."
With its increased political awareness, the military had little to gain from seeking direct power through the presidency but it would put its weight behind a retired general or another candidate who would protect its interests, Mr Stacher said.
No one has officially announced they are running for presidency, but those who might enter the fray include Hamdeen Sabahi, a popular Nasserite politician who came third in the 2012 presidential elections; Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister; and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a moderate Islamist who was cast out of the Muslim Brotherhood for disobedience in 2011.
The fast timeline for holding presidential elections put forward by the interim president may prevent popular candidates such as Hazem Abou Ismail, a Salafist politician who has a strong following among ultraconservative Islamists, from entering the race, said Nathan Brown, a professor of political science at Georgetown University.
Mr Ismail was disqualified in the last elections because his mother was found to have held US citizenship. The 2012 presidential election law said both parents of a candidate must be Egyptian.
"If the constitutional declaration's timeframe is followed, Egypt will have presidential elections very soon and that will likely mean that the old laW for presidential elections will be followed," Mr Brown said. "The number of viable candidates will be very small."
For now, the military appears to be testing for support among Egyptians for politicians with a military background. Gen El Sisi drew attention last week when he was given the position of deputy prime minister in addition to his previous post of defence minister in the interim cabinet.
"It seems that the Egyptian military is testing what the traffic will bear: removing the elected - albeit failed - president by military decree; making the defence minister a deputy prime minister, thereby giving him authority over civilian matters; and suggesting that the defence minister might take off his uniform and run for president," said Michele Dunne, the director of the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
"Logic suggests they will keep pursuing such initiatives until there is some pushback from within Egypt and the international community," she said.
Updated: July 22, 2013 04:00 AM