Egypt army chief says he will run for president

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CAIRO (AP) - Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the Egyptian military chief who last summer removed the elected Islamist president, announced Wednesday that he will run for president in elections expected next month, putting him on an apparent track to lead a nation beleaguered by ongoing turmoil and violence, a broken political order, a dilapidated economy and concerns over the chances for building a democracy.

Wearing his military fatigues in a nationally televised speech, el-Sissi announced he was resigning from the armed forces - a required step since only civilians can run for president. He declared that it was the last time he would wear his uniform because he was stepping down to run president and continue to defend the country. He said he was “answering the demand of a wide range of Egyptians.”

The 59-year-old el-Sissi is widely expected to win the vote, and restore a tradition of presidents from military background that Egypt had for all but one year since 1952. He has been the country’s most powerful figure since removing President Mohammed Morsi, and Morsi’s once politically dominant Muslim Brotherhood has since been declared a terrorist group.

A nationalist fervor has gripped the country since the removal of Morsi, who in 2012 became Egypt’s first freely elected and civilian president. The ouster in July came after massive protests by millions against Morsi and the Islamists.

Since then, the military-backed interim government has waged a fierce crackdown on the Brotherhood, arresting thousands of members and killing hundreds of protesters in clashes. At the same time, militants have waged a campaign of attacks on police and the military, and authorities have accused the Brotherhood of orchestrating terrorism, a claim the group denies.

Magdy Karkar, a senior member of a Brotherhood-led coalition organizing anti-government protests, said el-Sissi’s candidacy confirms that Morsi’s removal was a coup aimed at wrecking democracy, as Islamists have contended.

“His running will not achieve stability in Egypt. It’s true he has many supporters who love him or even worship him. But on the other hand, there are those who hate Gen. el-Sissi and hold him responsible for the blood that has been shed,” Karkar told The Associated Press.

For months, Egyptian media have been depicting el-Sissi, who was promoted to the rank of field marshal in January, as “the savior of the nation” for removing Morsi - and touting him as the only figure capable of running the country. Although there are no credible nationwide polls - in a country with widespread illiteracy - there is a strong sense that el-Sissi will easily win, with little competition.

Watching his speech in a coffee shop in Cairo, Sabry Ahmed, in his late 50s, said el-Sissi has what Egypt needs.

“He is a political man, a military man, and an economics man. He understands in everything regarding the state,” he said. “We can’t compare him to anyone else. The country needs a strong man of his size.”

In the neighborhood where el-Sissi was born in old Cairo, celebrations broke out as soon as he finished his speech. A distant relative, Mohammed Haroun, cheered: “This is the best decision he took in his life.”

His candidacy - and presidency, is he wins - is another dramatic turn in Egypt’s trajectory that began with the 2011 ouster of autocrat Hosni Mubarak in a popular uprising demanding democracy after a 29-year rule. The series of elections that followed were the freest Egypt has seen, and brought the Brotherhood and their Islamist allies to political dominance - only to see a large sector of the public turn against them over what was seen as exclusionary politics and attempts to reshape Egypt’s identity to deepen the role of Islam.

Morsi was Egypt’s only president since 1952 to not come from a military background. Amid the crackdown since his fall, critics fear a return to autocratic ways similar to the Mubarak era, in light of increasing reports of police abuses and intolerance of dissent.

The election commission is expected over the weekend to announce the date of the election.

The campaign will be a stark contrast to the 2012 vote, when 13 candidates of multiple political stripes ran for the presidency. This time, so far only one person has announced his intention to run against el-Sissi - leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi, who came in third in the 2012 vote.

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