CAIRO — A powerful council of Egypt’s top military commanders announced Monday that it is backing Defense Minister Abdel Fatah al-Sissi for president, a move likely to entrench the military’s political power and intensify its battle with an increasingly sophisticated Islamist insurgency.
The endorsement by Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces came just hours after the interim president, Adly Mansour — whom Sissi appointed last summer after he ousted elected president Mohamed Morsi — promoted the general to the position of field marshal, Egypt’s highest military rank, clearing the way for Sissi to make a bid for president.
The coterie of generals also declared that Sissi’s broad public backing made it an “obligation” that he run for president — a post he is almost certain to win.
The council’s move came two days after a militant group opposed to the July military coup shot down an army helicopter in the Sinai Peninsula, killing five soldiers. It marked the first time Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, a Sinai-based jihadist group, had used a shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile, the kind of weaponry that could present a serious threat to the military as it seeks to fend off a growing insurgency that has spread from the Sinai into the heart of Egypt’s capital.
Attacks by militants have boosted the perception that Sissi, already viewed as the de facto head of state, is leading a “war against terrorism” against Islamist opponents, granting him far-reaching popularity.
Thousands of Sissi’s supporters rallied in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on the third anniversary of Egypt’s Arab Spring uprising on Saturday, cheering on security forces and calling on the general to take the presidency.
The pro-government demonstration contrasted starkly with the protests held by liberal and leftist activists during the past three years, which sought to pressure authorities to grant rights demanded in the 2011 uprising that led to the overthrow of autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Many Egyptians expect Sissi to win the presidency by a landslide. It remains unclear who would challenge him in the election, which is likely to take place this spring.
“The military never stopped interfering in politics,” said Salma Said, an activist who protested against both Morsi and the military. Indeed, every one of Egypt’s presidents in the past six decades, except for Morsi, came from the military.
“Now the military is at its peak in having power over the state and countering the revolution” of 2011, she added.
During protests Saturday, security forces clashed with anti-government demonstrators, killing 62 people nationwide, health officials said. A harsh security campaign against Islamists aligned with Morsi has led to the deaths of more than 1,000 demonstrators, and thousands more have been imprisoned since the July coup.
Anger at government suppression has also provoked a violent insurgency against security forces. On Friday, five bombings targeted a security headquarters and police stations and checkpoints in Cairo. The attacks were claimed by Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which has declared responsibility for most major militant assaults in Egypt, including the helicopter downing on Saturday.
The group said in a statement Saturday night that one of its fighters fired on the aircraft with a shoulder-launched heat-seeking missile known to U.S. intelligence officials as a MANPAD, or man-portable air defense system. The next day, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis posted a video in which a militant is seen launching the missile at a distant helicopter flying over the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula. Once hit, the helicopter plummets to the ground in a ball of flames.
The army said five soldiers were killed, but did not say what caused the crash. Arms experts confirmed that the weapons system shown in the video is a surface-to-air missile capable of hitting low-flying aircraft with remarkable accuracy. Speaking to a private Egyptian television network Saturday, former military general Sameh Saif Yazal said the same.
The helicopter strike was the first known instance of MANPAD use in Egypt since the Arab Spring uprisings, though arms traffickers in Egypt’s lawless Sinai are believed to have smuggled dozens into the territory and the neighboring Gaza Strip. U.S. intelligence officials have warned of the proliferation of the heat-seeking devices since thousands were looted from dictator Moammar Gaddafi’s arsenals during the Libyan revolution in 2011.
The Egyptian army had already been waging a fierce fight against insurgents in the Sinai, an area long neglected by the government and rife with militancy and criminal activity. But the military’s edge over the armed fighters was drawn largely from its air superiority, which it has used to strike villages where it believes they are hiding.
Now that insurgents are threatening this advantage, it is unclear how Egypt’s military — which is the largest in the region but still struggles in the battlefield — will respond.
The strike was the latest sign of the threat faced by a multinational peacekeeping force in the Sinai that includes nearly 700 U.S. troops. The Multinational Force and Observers, which operates out of remote desert camps, has invested in security upgrades in recent years and relied more heavily on aircraft to move around, due to the dangers of traveling by road.
A senior U.S. defense official called the attack a “significant concern.”
“This is something we’ve been worried about for some time,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss threats against U.S. troops. “It’s demonstrative of the reason we have to continue to work with our partners in Egypt to address threats in the Sinai.”
The official said the incident came up during a phone conversation Monday between Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Sissi.
In Israel, which shares a volatile border with the Sinai Peninsula, there are worries the deadly missiles will be turned on Israeli military or civilian aircraft. Before the Egyptian military began cracking down on Islamists,
Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis largely launched operations against Israeli targets.
“This is a really important and significant development,” said Aviv Oreg, a former military intelligence analyst with the Israel Defense Forces.
Ernesto Londoño, Ruth Eglash and Sharaf al-Hourani contributed to this report.