Egypt’s military council has given army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi a green light to run for president, elevating him from the rank of general to field marshal.
He is expected to announce his candidacy within days.
The general deposed elected Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in July after mass unrest against his increasingly arbitrary rule. Since then, he has become hugely popular among Egyptians, who see him as a decisive figure able to stabilise a country that has lurched from one crisis to another since a popular uprising toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
Hours before Egypt’s top generals approved Gen Sisi contesting the election, the presidency announced he had been promoted to field marshal, in what security officials said was a sign he was about to declare his candidacy for the presidency.
“The decision was expected and it is the first step before the resignation of the general and his candidacy announcement, which is now expected very soon,” a security official said.
In order for Field Marshal Sisi to contest the election, he has to resign from his post as defence minister and from the military.
After toppling Mr Morsi, Gen Sisi unveiled a political roadmap that promised free and fair elections in Egypt.
But the Muslim Brotherhood has accused him of staging a coup and holds him responsible for what it says are widespread human rights abuses, in a security crackdown that has killed nearly 1,000 Islamists. The main Brotherhood leaders are all in jail.
The country’s deputy prime minister, Ziad Bahaa El-Din, a lawyer and moderate in the army-backed government, tendered his resignation yesterday.
He had called for a more inclusive political process in a country that is growing less tolerant of dissent by the day.
“A crucial stage of the roadmap is now over. It required keeping a unified front and avoiding disputes in order for the nation to emerge from constitutional and economic collapse,” a letter posted on Mr Bahaa El-Din’s Facebook page said. “Now that we start a new phase where the country is preparing for successive elections … I ask that you accept my resignation.”
Little known before Mr Morsi named him defence minister and army chief, Gen Sisi rocketed after the coup to become Egypt’s most powerful figure, lauded by supporters as the nation’s saviour.
On Saturday, large crowds turned out in rallies calling for him to run, in a show heavily orchestrated by military supporters, particularly a new political grouping called Masr Balady, or “Egypt is My Country”, which brings together prominent security figures, including a former interior minister and senior Muslim cleric Ali Gomaa.
At the same time, security forces cracked down on Islamist demonstrators demanding Mr Morsi’s reinstatement, in fighting that killed nearly 50 protesters – a sign of the still violent divisions in the country.
Islamist opponents describe the coup as treason and brand Gen Sisi a murderer. They have tried to cast him as a ruthless dictator, an enemy of Islam or an agent of the United States and Israel.
In a statement on Sunday, a Brotherhood-led Islamist alliance said the chants from its protests showed “the people want the execution of the murderer, not [that] the people want to appoint the murderer as president”.
Since Mr Morsi’s fall, Egypt has seen a wave of pro-military nationalist fervour and a return to prominence of security agencies that under Mubarak – and even after – were widely hated for abuses of power.
Soon after the coup, Gen Sisi called on Egyptians to take to the street in rallies to “delegate” him to fight terrorism.
Millions turned out in rallies, and police have since waged a fierce crackdown on the Brotherhood, arresting thousands of members and killing hundreds. The crackdown also swept away secular-leaning activists and youth leaders as part of a wave of intimidation of critics, sparking fears among some of a return to a Mubarak-style police state.
With the exception of Mr Morsi, who held office for a year, Egypt has been ruled by men of military background since the overthrow of the monarchy in a coup some 60 years ago.