CAIRO – Egypt's military chief, Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, gave his strongest indication yet that he intends to run for president, saying Tuesday that he "can't turn his back" to public demands. In a campaign-style speech, he said Egyptians must unite and end street turmoil to tackle the country's mounting economic and security woes.
El-Sissi is considered almost certain to win if he runs for president, riding on a wave of popular fervor since he ousted the country's first freely elected president, Islamist Mohammed Morsi, who had faced massive protests demanding his removal after a year in office.
Since the ouster last summer, a heated anti-Islamist and nationalist media campaign has fanned support for el-Sissi, touting him as the nation's savior. For weeks, pro-military media have been saying the field marshal will announce his candidacy imminently.
El-Sissi's speech to military cadets and their families during a graduation ceremony, later aired on state TV, appeared aimed at explaining to nervous supporters why he has not yet made an official announcement amid the widespread expectations -- while laying out what is likely to be a theme of his campaign, that Egyptians must take responsibility for restoring stability and rebuilding the economy.
He virtually confirmed he intends to run. "Don't imagine that anyone who truly loves his country and loves the Egyptians, can ever turn his back on them when he finds there is a desire by many of them. No one can do that," he said, to applause from the audience.
He said he could not openly declare his candidacy since he still holds the post of defense minister. "Let us leave things for the coming days," he said, hinting that he was waiting for the interim president to issue a law governing the presidential vote. The vote is to be held by the end of April.
"I spoke in signs so that people don't get confused" amid much speculation, el-Sissi said. "I hope you all got the sign."
His call for unity reflected the daunting problems he would face if he becomes president. Morsi's Islamist supporters have been protesting for months demanding his reinstatement, though the protests have waned in the face of a fierce police crackdown that has killed an estimated 2,000 people and arrested thousands of members of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood. Also, Islamic militants have been waging a campaign of bombings and assassinations. The economy has been wrecked since the 2011 ouster of autocratic President Hosni Mubarak.
"Don't imagine that any one person can solve the problems in Egypt, regardless of who it is you select. No, it will be solved by all of us," he said. "Don't imagine that the problems accumulated for over 30 years, can be solved without us joining hands."
In an implicit call to Morsi supporters to end their protests, he said, "Maybe eight months (since Morsi's ouster) is a time to start to review and reconsider. ... Look around you to see if what is happening pleases God."
"Egyptians, you need to put your hands together to avert a real danger for Egypt," he said.
Over the past weeks, the 59-year-old U.S.-trained army chief has been increasingly acting in a presidential fashion, most notably a visit last month to Russia, where he secured the Kremlin's blessing for his likely presidential bid.
Last week, his wife made her first public appearance: Intisar el-Sissi was seated next to him during a ceremony honoring senior officers.
Posters of el-Sissi next to a lion are plastered on walls and hoisted on lampposts across much of the country. Songs praising the military and el-Sissi are played on radio and blare from coffee shops. Supporters often tout him as the new Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the legendary Arab nationalist who ruled in 1950s and 1960s.
The law governing the upcoming presidential vote was given on Tuesday to the Cabinet for consultations, after which it will be given to interim President Adly Mansour to issue.
Ali Awad, the president legal adviser, said that one article in the new law provides that if only one candidate runs, the vote will be a referendum on the candidate. Another article would allow for the results of the voting to be appealed if a complaint is filed within a week of their announcement. Awad said the articles will still be debated by the Cabinet.
If confirmed, the one-candidate vote would be a throwback to the era of autocratic President Hosni Mubarak, who for most of his rule was repeatedly re-elected in one-man yes-no referendums. He stood in a multicandidate vote once, in 2005, and was ousted in the 2011 popular uprising.
Meanwhile, a court on Tuesday banned all activities in Egypt of the Palestinian militant group Hamas and ordered the closure of any Hamas offices.
Hamas, which rules the neighboring Gaza Strip, is the Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood. Authorities accuse Hamas, in cooperation with the Brotherhood, of training and arming the Al Qaeda inspired group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which has carried out a string of bombings and attacks on police and the military. The Brotherhood and Hamas both deny the accusation.
In Gaza, senior Hamas official Izzat Rishq condemned Tuesday's ruling, calling it a "political decision" directed against the Palestinian people and their resistance. His comments came in a statement sent by email.
On his Facebook page, Hamas leader Moussa Abu Marzouk wrote that the group has no affiliates in Egypt and all its past meetings or visits in Egypt were carried out with the knowledge of Egypt's general intelligence agency.
Tuesday's ruling by the Court of Urgent Matters was the result of a case brought by an Egyptian lawyer seeking a verdict branding Hamas a terrorist organization. The ruling did not directly declare the group a terrorist organization.