CAIRO -- Field Marshal Abdel Fattah Sisi stepped down Wednesday as Egypt’s defense minister and declared his candidacy for president.
Appearing on nationwide television for what he said would be the last time in military uniform, Sisi called for national unity and emphasized that tough economic times lie ahead.
“I, with all humility, come forward announcing my intention to run for the presidency,” he said. “Your support will be giving me this great honor.”
He must run as a civilian, but Egypt has a long-standing tradition of leaders drawn from the ranks of the military.
The 59-year-old Sisi’s victory is considered virtually assured. He shot to fame and immense popularity after leading the coup last July against Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, an Islamist.
In the nearly nine months since then, Egypt’s interim government has conducted a sweeping crackdown against Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood that has expanded to include some secular critics as well.
Human rights groups and Western governments have expressed concern about a variety of repressive measures enacted by the military-led government, including the criminalizing of unsanctioned street protests and the jailing of thousands, many without charges. This week, Egypt again found itself the target of sharp international criticism after a criminal court sentenced 529 defendants to death in the killing of a single police officer.
The Obama administration said the mass sentencing would be a factor in deciding whether to restore hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Egypt, which was suspended last year. But Egypt’s chief prosecutor on Wednesday ordered two more mass tribunals for a total of more than 900 suspected Islamists accused of murder.
Only one opponent has thus far declared a presidential candidacy, liberal politician Hamdeen Sabahi. Several other prominent political figures have said they would sit out the race. At least one, former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik, declared that the balloting would be a sham.
In his address, Sisi sought to dispel the notion that it was basically a one-man race, saying no one could tell the Egyptian people whom to elect.
The interim government has described the upcoming presidential vote, coupled with parliamentary elections and a constitutional referendum that was held earlier this year, as a key element in what it characterizes as a transition to democracy. The new constitution was endorsed by 97% of voters, with opponents mainly staying away from the polls.
The selection of a new defense minister was not immediately announced, but Sisi’s likely replacement is Sedki Sobhi, whose promotion to general was announced Wednesday.
Hassan is a special correspondent.