CAIRO – Egypt's military chief is looking for a strong turnout in next week's constitutional referendum as a mandate to run for president. But the popular general who ousted President Mohammed Morsi and ordered a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood could be disappointed: His Islamist foes have promised a boycott and mass demonstrations aimed at keeping voters at home.
A presidential run by Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi will also depend on whether oil-rich Gulf Arab nations like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates pledge financial assistance substantial enough to keep Egypt's battered economy afloat and bankroll major development projects, senior officials told The Associated Press. That would create a large number of jobs, allowing the general to retain popular support while he searches for long-term remedies for the country's economic ills.
No date has been set for a presidential election or whether it should be held before or after parliamentary elections, also slated for this year. There are growing signs that the presidential vote will be held first, as early as April.
The significance and timing of the referendum are all too significant.
A comfortable "yes" majority — of, say, 70 percent or more — along with a respectable turnout, would enshrine the legitimacy of the regime installed by el-Sissi when he ousted Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected leader, in a July 3 coup.
El-Sissi, a 59-year-old career infantry officer, has enjoyed soaring popularity in the nearly six months since Morsi's removal, with many Egyptians looking to him to be their savior after three years of turmoil and a heavy legacy of corruption and economic and social injustice left behind by ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak's 29-year rule.
Egypt's mostly pro-military media has been treating el-Sissi's candidacy as an all but foregone conclusion, but the general has remained publicly silent on the issue since he told a newspaper interviewer late last year that he could not rule out a bid for the presidency.
The last time el-Sissi asked for a popular mandate was in July, when he called on Egyptians to take to the streets in support of what he called a fight against "possible terrorism." Millions responded and security forces have since stepped up their crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, rounding up most of the group's leaders, together with thousands of Morsi supporters. Hundreds were killed when security forces cleared two pro-Morsi sit-in camps in August.
Senior officials, including two Cabinet ministers, army generals, security chiefs, top clerics linked to the post-Morsi administration and officials at the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of police, painted a mixed and complex picture of the dilemma facing el-Sissi as he ponders a presidential run.
Interviewed over the past week by the AP, they said he was most concerned by the possibility of a poor turnout or a slender "yes" majority in the Jan. 14-15 vote on the constitution. The charter is a heavily amended version of an Islamist-tilted one drafted by Morsi's allies and adopted in a referendum in December 2012.
That constitution was adopted by some 64 percent of the vote, but with a modest turnout of under 35 percent.
If the "yes" vote and the turnout are below expectations, the officials said, el-Sissi would remain as the source of behind-the-scene power, retain his Cabinet position as first deputy prime minister and defense minister, and throw his weight behind a candidate of his choice.
Already, a clause introduced in the draft constitution gives the military veto power over the choice of defense minister for the next eight years — language that secures el-Sissi's current job if he chooses not to run for president, while weakening the authority of the president until 2022.
The officials' assertion that el-Sissi wants an emphatic popular endorsement and firm pledge of financial aid from the wealthy Gulf nations before announcing a presidential run is understandable given Egypt's multitude of socio-economic problems, from high unemployment and inflation, to poor services and a weak education system.
The United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have pumped a whopping $12 billion into Egypt's coffers since Morsi's ouster. That money has mostly been spent on the nation's essential food and energy imports, however, making an economic reform program essential.
Since Mubarak's removal, Egypt has seen its vital tourism industry slump, investors flee and hundreds of factories close. Near daily street protests, strikes and sit-ins have disrupted life across much of the country and curtailed productivity.
"So far, I don't see that el-Sissi has a coherent economic program that can address the real economic and social problems in Egypt," said Khalil el-Anani, a senior fellow at Washington's Middle East Institute. "He cannot continue to bank on the anti-Muslim Brotherhood sentiment for support. He needs to deliver solutions to economic and social issues."
Morsi's supporters have taken to the streets to demand the popularly elected leader's reinstatement — demonstrations the Muslim Brotherhood insists are peaceful, though most end violently, with protesters pelting the police with rocks and firebombs, and police responding with tear gas and bird shot.
Lately, a growing number of pro-Morsi protesters have been seen with firearms.
That has raised fears that the Brotherhood and its Islamist backers will attempt to disrupt the vote and raise questions over its fairness, said one senior official. He, like the other top officials interviewed by the AP, spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.
And, while the Muslim Brotherhood has publicly said it will boycott the constitutional referendum, the officials said they suspect the group will instead put to work its mobilization abilities to rally a "no" vote that, coupled with a possible poor turnout, could significantly eat into a "yes" majority.
Another concern is that the return to the political scene of Mubarak-era officials has driven away many of the liberal youth groups and other prominent secular figures who played a pivotal role in the 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak, campaigned against the generals who succeeded him and vigorously worked for the removal of Morsi. Many now criticize what they see as harsh military rule.
They have been further alienated by the detention, trial and swift conviction of some of their iconic figures for violating a recently introduced law that places stringent conditions on street protests. The move has led many to warn of a return to the authoritarian ways and police brutality of the Mubarak era, and of an attempt to cast the January 2011 revolution as a foreign-backed plot.
The officials interviewed by the AP tried to distance themselves from the crackdown on liberal and secular youth groups. While acknowledging that the mass demonstrations preceding the July coup attracted many Mubarak supporters, they said a media campaign to stain the reputation of revolutionary youth leaders did not enjoy the approval of the military and any Mubarak-era officials suspected of corruption would not be allowed to assume office.
Having a military man at the helm of power is not new in Egypt which, with the exception of Morsi, has been continuously ruled by men of military background since the overthrow of the monarchy some 60 years ago.
An el-Sissi presidency would be in keeping with this familiar formula, noted Tamara Wittes, director of the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution in Washington. But she warned the popular mood of today's Egypt may not tolerate that.
"That's the model that they know. It's part of the recipe for Egyptian stability. But one of the lessons of the January 2011 revolution is that the old recipe doesn't work anymore, and it seems to me that the military hasn't learned that yet," she said.
"Egypt has demonstrated repeatedly over last two years that it's no longer willing to tolerate living in a repressive society."
Associated Press reporter Laura Dean contributed to this report from Cairo.