CAIRO — Egypt’s top military officer on Saturday offered the clearest sign that he sees this week’s referendum on a revised constitution as a prelude to a bid for the presidency, moving to consolidate his power after his ouster of President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The officer, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, swiftly emerged as Egypt’s paramount decision maker after the military takeover in July, but he had previously left some doubt about whether he would try to add the formal title of president or keep his power behind the scenes.
On Saturday, though, he all but explicitly announced he would run by linking his potential presidential candidacy to the constitutional referendum this week.
The timing of his statement suggested he would view a yes vote as a demonstration of his mandate to seek the presidency. It is also the first effort to add formal democratic legitimacy to his ouster of Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected president.
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“If I run, then it must be at the request of the people and with a mandate from my army,” el-Sissi said at a military seminar, according to the website of the state newspaper, Al Ahram. “I can’t turn my back on Egypt.”
El-Sissi, the defense minister, called on voters to turn out to vote for the constitution, urging them in personal terms. “Don’t embarrass me in front of the world,” he said, “not me personally but the military, because in the military we are as united as one man’s heart, and we adhere to democracy.”
The explicit link between his candidacy and the referendum appeared to be a bet that he could promote both at once, exploiting his personal popularity to draw sympathetic voters to the constitutional plebiscite, while at the same time using it to begin his presidential campaign.
The revised charter is not radically different from the constitution drafted by an Islamist-led assembly. That charter, which was approved slightly more than a year ago by almost 2-to-1 with about one-third of the electorate voting, set a benchmark for this week’s vote.
The new text includes some broader language protecting religious freedom and women’s rights while excising some, but not all, of the stipulations that Islamic law is the bedrock of Egyptian jurisprudence.
Its biggest changes are increases in the power and autonomy of the military, the police and the judiciary, the three governmental institutions that teamed up to help force Morsi from power.
Approval is widely expected.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that backed Morsi and won the most votes in recent elections, has said it will boycott the referendum, which it sees as an attempt to legitimize a coup.