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In Egypt's political vacuum, el-Sissi looms large

Friday - 3/28/2014, 12:40am  ET

This image made from video shows relatives reacting after an Egyptian court on Monday sentenced to death 529 supporters of ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in connection to an attack on a police station that killed a senior police officer in Minya, Egypt, Monday, March 24, 2014. The convictions came after after two sessions in a mass trial that raised an outcry from rights activists and threatened to spark a violent backlash.(AP Photo via AP video)

Associated Press

CAIRO (AP) -- Former military chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, if he wins Egypt's presidency as is widely expected, will have an overwhelming presence over a shattered political scene. Egypt's once dominant political force, the Muslim Brotherhood, is crushed under a relentless crackdown. Non-Islamist parties are weak and largely acquiescent to his power.

But the political vacuum is hardly a stable one.

Supporters of the ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi vowed Thursday to push ahead with their campaign of protests against what they called el-Sissi's "republic of fear," betting that over time the public will turn against el-Sissi if he fails to address the monumental challenges facing the country, including a crippled economy. Secular anti-military youth movements -- who also oppose the Islamists -- are also watching whether public opinion turns.

Amid that vacuum and in the absence of his own party, el-Sissi surrounded himself with politicians, technocrats and big businessmen from the era of ousted President Hosni Mubarak and has the powerful backing of the military and the security forces. That has deepened concerns his presidency would mean a return of the autocratic methods of the past that prompted the 2011 uprising against Mubarak.

El-Sissi, who as military chief removed Morsi from office in July and has since been the most powerful figure in the country, announced Wednesday that he had resigned from the military and will run for president in elections expected next month. The election committee is expected over the weekend to announce the date of the election and open the door for formal candidacies.

So far, only one person has announced his intention to run against el-Sissi -- Hamdeen Sabahi, a leftist politician who finished third in the 2012 presidential election. Other prominent figures, including Islamists who broke away from the Brotherhood, have publicly said they won't compete, given that el-Sissi is widely assumed to be the sure victor.

Islamist supporters of the Brotherhood and its allies, which dominated elections since Mubarak's 2011 fall, are likely to stay away from the polls.

El-Sissi's campaign will be an unusual one, given fears of threats to his life amid Egypt's sharp polarization and the campaign of attacks by Islamic militants in retaliation for Morsi's ouster. In his announcement Wednesday, he acknowledged he won't run "a traditional campaign."

El-Sissi will not appear in street rallies but will base his campaign on TV appearances, said Abdullah el-Sinnawi, a veteran journalist close to the former military chief. El-Sissi has taken on a private security firm for the campaign but plainclothes troops will also be heavily involved in his appearances, military officials told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.

There has been a wild media fervor surrounding el-Sissi for months, touting him as the nation's savior and the sole figure strong enough to rule -- making weighing his true popularity difficult. But large sectors of the population are likely to back him out of a desire for stability or out of resentment of the Brotherhood. The leader of the ultraconservative Islamist al-Nour Party, Younis Makhyoun, said el-Sissi has wide popularity in rural areas, where most of Egypt's population of 90 million live.

In the fractured political landscape, el-Sissi has put together a political machine centered on himself that may give hints into the nature of his presidency.

The military publicly committed itself to el-Sissi's presidency when its top body of generals, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, announced its support for his candidacy earlier this year. Its branches are lined up to help el-Sissi even after he took off his uniform.

The military's Morale Affairs department has a strong influence with Egypt's privately owned media. It meets regularly with the managers of the country's main biggest TV stations, which are owned by prominent businessmen who have strong ties with the military or are ferociously anti-Islamist.

Morale Affairs and military intelligence conduct frequent public opinion polls, which are not released, but which are fed to el-Sissi, several military officials told The Associated Press. Several polls, for example, measured public opinion on the crackdown on Islamists, and the officials said one showed strong public opposition to any reconciliation with the Brotherhood -- though the officials released no information on the polls and it was impossible to know their content. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.

El-Sissi took steps to secure his position during his last weeks in the military.

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