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Popular wave could lift Egypt army chief to office

Thursday - 1/30/2014, 10:00am  ET

LEE KEATH
Associated Press

CAIRO (AP) -- Unknown only two years ago, the head of Egypt's military, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, is riding on a wave of popular fervor that is almost certain to carry him to election as president. Many Egyptians now hail him as the nation's savior after he ousted the Islamists from power and as the only figure strong enough to lead.

Still, if he becomes president, el-Sissi runs enormous risks.

His presidency would enmesh the military even deeper into politics, putting the credibility of the powerful institution on the line if he fails to resolve the country's woes. Turmoil may only increase with a backlash from Islamists, who now despise el-Sissi for his ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and for the brutal crackdown on their ranks that has arrested thousands and killed hundreds since.

And there is little indication of how he would rule.

Secular critics fear a return of an autocracy similar to that led by Hosni Mubarak for nearly 30 years until his ouster in 2011's popular uprising. El-Sissi has said it is impossible to now return to Mubarak's style of rule and that the country must move to democracy. But elements of Mubarak's police state -- including top security officials and the business elite -- are among his fervent supporters, and the crackdown on Islamists has already expanded into a wider suppression of dissent.

Many el-Sissi fans tout him as a new Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who rose to the presidency after the 1952 coup that toppled the monarchy and became a charismatic strongman, inspiring the nation with grand projects like the building of the Aswan High Dam and his vision of Arab nationalism.

A personality cult unseen in the country since Nasser's era has swiftly risen up around el-Sissi. It depicts him as pious and modest, sensitive and emotional yet firm and decisive, a patriot rooted in the common folk of his childhood home el-Gamaliya, a corner of Cairo's Medieval Islamic City seen as embodying the country's best traditions.

As president, that popularity could enable el-Sissi to push through potentially controversial changes. In unpublished footage from an interview with an Egyptian newspaper that was recently leaked, for example, he talks of lifting subsidies on food and fuel "all of a sudden." The subsidies are a gigantic drag on the government budget that economists agree must be reformed -- but since Egypt's impoverished population relies on them, attempts at reform has repeatedly fallen apart. (The comments also point to how Nasser comparisons only go so far: El-Sissi has expressed support for faster privatization in the economy, reversing Nasser's socialist legacy.)

Conceivably, el-Sissi could even be the only player powerful enough to force reconciliation with Islamists -- an idea that has become politically unspeakable amid the fervor to crush the Brotherhood. Some officials have suggested he is a relative dove among more hardline anti-Brotherhood officers in the military and security forces, though so far he has shown nothing but support for the crackdown on the group, which was launched after giant rallies he called for in July to "mandate" him to fight terrorism.

The dramatic shows of popularity now could mean little later in a divided nation that has turned against two rulers the past three years. The difference this time is the overt commitment that the military, Egypt's most powerful institution, has invested after its top body of generals, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, publicly gave its backing to an el-Sissi candidacy on Monday.

"The military's reputation is bound up with an el-Sissi presidency," said Michael Hanna, an Egypt analyst and senior fellow at the Century Foundation in New York.

If el-Sissi cannot stop the mounting insecurity and the further deterioration of the economy, the public backlash could come against the military as an institution, a situation that "if anything, could create divisions within the military," he said.

El-Sissi knows the dangers. During Morsi's presidency, when Islamists and their opponents were clashing in the streets, he warned in speeches that if the military intervened in the political conflict, it could take decades for it to return to the barracks. In a meeting with army officers late in 2012, he warned that military interference in politics is dangerous for both the state and the army, pointing to Syria, where the military backed President Bashar Assad against an uprising and the nation crumbled into civil war.

"It is not patriotism to take sides ... this is not my business," he said. "The vendetta won't end, the divisions will continue and chaos will persist for two, five, 10 years. The Syrian state is over."

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