Three years ago, Abdel Fatah al-Sissi was a mostly unknown member of a council of Egypt’s top military officers. On Wednesday, the field marshal, whose image is now plastered on billboards and chocolate bars, declared what everyone in this nation was expecting — that he would run for president, a position he is virtually certain to win.

“The state needs to regain its posture and power,” he said in an address on national television. “Our mission is to restore Egypt.”

Officially, Sissi will run for president as a civilian. But the 59-year-old’s election would complete the defeat of Egypt’s brief experiment in Islamist rule and make him the sixth military man to lead the country over what has been a nearly unbroken 62-year span of autocracy.

(Read: Here are the military leaders who have ruled Egypt since it became a republic.)

It was under Sissi’s command that the military staged the coup in July that toppled Mohamed Morsi, who in 2012 had become Egypt’s first democratically elected president. If Sissi wins the backing of voters, he could gain greater legitimacy. But his role continues to pose a challenge for the United States, which is eager to maintain close ties with Egypt, a longtime ally, without appearing to endorse its shift away from democracy.

In this image made from a video broadcast on Egypt's State Television Wednesday, Egypt's military chief Abdel Fatah al-Sissi announces that he will run for president. (AP)

Unlike Hosni Mubarak, Anwar Sadat and the other military leaders who preceded him, Sissi never fought in any of Egypt’s wars with Israel, a source of both pride and legitimacy for the other men, as well as a lingering aspect of the nation’s cultural identity. Even so, supporters have likened Sissi to Egypt’s most popular military president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who planned the 1952 coup that ousted the monarchy.

No election date has been set, but Sissi was required to step down as defense minister to become a presidential candidate. “I leave this uniform to defend the country,’’ he said.

Only one other politician, leftist Hamdeen Sabbahi, has declared plans to compete in the race.

Those who know him say Sissi favors a strong relationship with the United States but was frustrated by what he viewed as a lack of support from Washington after last summer’s coup.

Sissi’s rise to political power has unfolded with breathtaking speed, a path that his colleagues insist he did not begin to envision until after the coup — though people who have met him say his growing popularity and ego quickly led him to set his sights on power.

“This guy is both ruthless and ambitious,” said one Western diplomat who knows him well, describing the impression Sissi gave, when still a general, at their first meeting a few years ago. “This is a guy who always had his eye on the prize.”

The Sissi-backed government appointed in the wake of the coup has presided over the country’s harshest political crackdown in nearly two decades. The Muslim Brotherhood, the victor in the 2012 election, has been declared a terrorist group, with Morsi and other former leaders jailed.

But to many Egyptians, that kind of forcefulness is part of Sissi’s allure; after three years of tumult, many want a strong hand to stabilize Egypt’s free-falling economy, quell anti-
government protests and an increasingly violent insurgency, and restore law and order.

“People are seeing the necessity of accepting a powerful candidate,” said Ayman Farouk, a security reporter at the state-run al-Ahram newspaper, where pictures of the military, Sissi and masses of his supporters adorn the walls.

Many unknowns about Sissi

What remains uncertain is whether Sissi can ultimately satisfy a population that revolted against Mubarak and forced him from power during the Arab Spring in 2011, then turned its anger against the Islamists two years later in mass protests that the military cited as evidence in asserting that Morsi’s ouster reflected the popular will.

In an interview with The Washington Post in August, Sissi said that “more than 30 million people’’ had demonstrated in Egypt’s streets to show him their support, a figure that would represent about 35 percent of the country’s population. More recently, Sissi said in an address that he could not “ignore” the nation’s demands for him to run for president.

Little is known about Sissi’s personal life, policies or vision for Egypt’s future. His public appearances are carefully choreographed, and he rarely grants media interviews. Even as a young general, though, he showed a keen interest in interacting with high-ranking officials from other countries, the Western diplomat said. In the wake of Mubarak’s fall, Sissi positioned himself to be the military’s main emissary in negotiations with the Muslim Brotherhood, which at that point was a rising political power.

“He’s certainly smarter than any of the other major Egyptian military leaders,” the diplomat said.

Sissi said Wednesday night that he had enlisted in the armed forces at age 15. He graduated from the Egyptian Military Academy in 1977 and rose quickly through the ranks. In 2006, he was selected to spend a year at the U.S. Army War College.

He ultimately became the youngest member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the secretive body that in 2011 temporarily took control of Egypt after Mubarak’s ouster.

It was Morsi who promoted Sissi to defense minister in 2012, sidelining several senior Mubarak allies. At the time, people close to Morsi said the Islamist president thought he had found an ally; during his time at the Army War College, Sissi had written approvingly of Islam’s role in Middle Eastern democracies.

But he turned out to be more of a pragmatist.

Last month, when Sissi’s wife made her first public appearance, she wore a head scarf rather than the full-length abaya that would have marked her as a more conservative Muslim — prompting relief among Sissi’s more secular supporters.

A biographical sketch provided by the Defense Ministry lists only the positions in which he has served, the medals he has received and the courses he has taken — including a basic infantry course in Texas and the war-college stint. It describes Sissi as a father of four whose hobbies include sports and reading.

A high-ranking military officer close to Sissi said the general often rides his bicycle around the Defense Ministry’s vast compound.

Lack of policy expertise

One notable foray into the public spotlight came in 2011, when Sissi, as head of military intelligence, defended the military’s use of “virginity tests” on female democracy activists who had been detained during protests — a practice that rights groups likened to rape.

Sissi has said little about his plans for the economy, which experts say will be the most crucial component of any long-term strategy to achieve stability in this troubled nation. But supporters say his “strength” as a military man can compensate for any lack of policy expertise.

“It is not a matter of detail or economic plan,” said Mohamed Shoeib, the managing director of the local investment firm Citadel Capital and the former head of Egypt’s national gas company under Mubarak.

What Sissi’s supporters argue, instead, is that his command over Egypt’s myriad security forces means he can succeed in quelling opposition in the country and that calm and stability will promote growth.

“Investments will pour in the day the perception of security is restored,” said Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour, the minister of foreign trade, industry and investment.

Sissi has proved successful in eliciting financial support for Egypt from the wealthy Persian Gulf states that have long been close to the nation’s military. These countries had been unnerved by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait have pumped billions of dollars into Egypt since the coup.

But some experts say that the assistance could dry up if there are no changes in policy and that it’s unclear what Sissi has in mind.

“I have no idea,” said Abdel Nour, who nevertheless backs Sissi’s candidacy.

Already, Egypt’s vast state bureaucracy has spent months functioning, in essence, as a promoter of a Sissi presidential campaign.

Billboards bearing his face have proliferated along highways, bridges and government-run tollbooths. On television, news anchors hail Sissi’s wisdom, courage and intelligence. On state radio, a pro-military song, Teslam el-Ayadi, or “Bless Your Hands,” blares frequently.

Sharaf al-Hourani contributed to this report.