CAIRO: Rival groups of Islamists and pro-military supporters in Egypt are calling for mass demonstrations in city squares across the country today after the country’s former military chief announced much-anticipated plans to run for president in an election he is widely expected to win.
Abdel Fattah Al Sisi declared his presidential bid late on Wednesday after resigning from the armed forces in a procedural step required because only civilians can run for the country’s highest office.
He had built popular support after ousting Islamist president Mohamed Mursi following days of mass demonstrations demanding him to step down for abusing power.
Mursi’s supporters since then have staged near daily protests, though the demonstrations waned over time as a heavy security crackdown left thousands in prison, others in exile and hundreds more dead.
US deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Washington was not backing any candidate in the election, saying it was up to the Egyptian people to decide.
But it was “critical that they are able to do so in an environment that allows the free expression of political views without intimidation or fear of retribution”, Harf said.
Washington has been critical of Egypt’s military-installed government for the slow transition to democracy since Mursi’s ouster.
But the Egyptian cabinet reiterated that it aims to “build a modern state based on democratic institutions”.
Government spokesman Hany Salah told reporters the cabinet praised “the patriotic and fundamental role played by Sisi in the success of the June revolution”, referring to Mursi’s ouster after mass protests against the Islamist’s one-year rule.
A separate cabinet statement praised Sisi for “facing the forces of terrorism and destruction with full force and vigour”.
Yesterday, brief clashes broke out between Islamist students and security forces, with police firing tear gas to disperse protests near the Defence Ministry.
A call for protests by Islamists led by the Muslim Brotherhood described Al Sisi’s nomination as proof that his removal of Mursi amounted to a coup. Its statement said Al Sisi’s agenda was to “establish a republic of fear, repression, poverty and submission.”
Tamarod, the group that spearheaded the protests against Mursi and supports the new government, called for street rallies of its own today to “give thanks to the citizen Abdel Fattah Al Sisi for responding to the people’s will” and to support his presidential bid. Its official website featured pictures of its members holding signs in support of Al Sisi in different provinces.
While turnout is not expected to be massive on either side today, the competing calls underlined the persistent polarisation of Egyptian politics and the threat of street violence.
Al Sisi yesterday shed his military uniform and showed up for the first time at Cabinet headquarters wearing civilian clothes. He resigned as Egypt’s defence minister, a day after announcing he would stand for president.
Also yesterday, Sedki Sobhi, who has close ties to Al Sisi and was his former chief of staff, was sworn in as the country’s new defence minister and army chief by interim president Adly Mansour.
Mahmoud Hegazy was appointed as the new chief of staff. His daughter is married to one of Al Sisi’s sons.