CAIRO: Egypt's army chief, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who led last summer's coup ousting the Islamist president, inched closer to running for the country's top position on Monday, receiving a promotion to the military's highest rank and meeting with top commanders to discuss a possible presidential bid.
If el-Sissi runs in the elections due by the end of April, he would likely sweep the vote, given his popularity among a significant sector of the public, the lack of alternatives, the almost universal support in Egypt's media and the powerful atmosphere of intimidation against any criticism of the general in the country.
Over the weekend, large crowds turned out in rallies calling for el-Sissi to run, in a show heavily orchestrated by military supporters. At the same time, security forces cracked down on Islamists protesting to demand the reinstatement of ousted President Mohammed Morsi, in fighting that killed nearly 50 protesters - a sign of the violent divisions in the country.
An el-Sissi run would be a new turn in Egypt's turmoil, which began with the 2011 uprising that ousted autocrat Mubarak - a veteran of the military who ruled for nearly 30 years - in the name of bringing civilian rule, reform and greater democracy. The country's freest elections ever that followed brought to power the Islamists and Morsi as president, only for a large portion of the population to turn against him, accusing his Muslim Brotherhood of trying to monopolize power. Massive protests prompted el-Sissi to depose Morsi on July 3.
Since then, the country has seen a wave of pro-military nationalist fervor and a return to prominence of security agencies that under Mubarak and even after were widely hated for abuses of power. Police have waged a fierce crackdown on the Brotherhood, arrested thousands of members and killing hundreds.
The heavy-handed security crackdown, jailing of activists and intimidation of critics have sparked fears among some of a return to Egypt's police state.
El-Sissi, who held the rank of general before Monday's promotion and is also defense minister, has yet to announce his intentions. El-Sissi's promotion to field marshal by Egypt's interim president could be a prelude to leaving the military to run for president. Under law, a current member of the military cannot run for the post.
El-Sissi met on Monday with the military's top body of generals, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, to discuss the current security situation and the possibility of el-Sissi contesting the elections, the state news agency MENA reported.
If el-Sissi leaves the military, SCAF has to choose a new army chief and defense minister. According to the new constitution, the president can't appoint a new defense minister without SCAF endorsement.
The promotion gives el-Sissi the same rank held by his predecessor, Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, who was army chief and defense minister for years under former President Hosni Mubarak and who then stepped in as military ruler for nearly 17 months after Mubarak's ouster in the 2011 uprising. After Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president, was inaugurated in 2012, he removed Tantawi and installed el-Sissi.
Retired Gen. Hossam Sweilam, an analyst who remains close to the military, said he believes the promotion was meant as a final honor before el-Sissi runs.
"This is a belated move by the state to honor the man who removed the Muslim Brotherhood from power," he told The Associated Press. "This is to pave the way for him to leave the military while holding the highest title and contest elections."
A day earlier, interim President Adly Mansour, announced that presidential elections would be held first, followed by parliamentary elections, switching the order first laid out in a transition plan put forward by the military after Morsi's ouster.
The presidential election is now expected before the end of April, while a parliamentary vote should come before the end of July.
The presidential elections comes against backdrop of an Islamic militant insurgency that has spread since Morsi's ouster, with a rise in attacks that initially intensified in the Sinai Peninsula but have since increasingly taken place in the capital, Cairo, and other cities, mainly targeting police and the military. The government branded the Brotherhood a terrorist organization, accusing it of orchestrating the violence. The group denies the charge, saying it is aimed at justifying the crackdown.