Egypt's army chief has given his clearest indication yet that he will run for president. General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the man who ousted Mohamed Morsi following mass protests last July, appeared to tell military colleagues on Saturday that he would view a strong yes vote in this week's constitutional referendum as a mandate to run for office.
"If I run for the presidency, it must be by the request of the people and with a mandate from my army," Sisi said, according to Egypt's state-run news agency, in response to a question at an army lecture. "When Egyptians say something, we obey and I will never turn my back on Egypt."
Sisi's comments came three days before the start of a referendum on a new constitution that officials and local media have largely portrayed as an informal plebiscite on the direction the country has taken since Morsi's overthrow. The timing of Sisi's intervention suggested he would see strong support for the constitution as a sign that he should run.
For months, Sisi has refused to confirm or deny rumours that he will seek the presidency. His uncertain intentions have made it difficult for others to declare their own presidential ambitions. Few are willing to openly declare their opposition to a man many praise for overthrowing Morsi, and who is expected to win any contest he enters.
"I think if Sisi runs, and I think that's most likely now, he will win in the first round," argued Sameh Seif Elyazal, a retired army general, and director of the al-Gomhoria centre for political and security studies. Speaking to the Guardian earlier this week, Elyazal said that only Sisi had the popularity to unite Egyptians through what is expected to be a tough upcoming period.
Support for Sisi is clearly visible across much of Egypt. Posters and banners of the general adorn many Egyptian streets, and his supporters claim to have gathered millions of signatures calling for him to run. Many who protested against the authoritarian Hosni Mubarak in 2011 may now welcome a new strongman as president, exhausted by the three years of turmoil that have followed Mubarak's fall.
But reliable polling is scarce in Egypt, and it is unclear exactly how large a faction his supporters form. A Zogby poll from September suggested that although backing for the army stands at 71%, Sisi and Morsi have roughly even support.
Only 10% of expatriate Egyptians, who began voting early, have taken part in the referendum, according to figures released by Egyptian officials – with just one day of overseas voting left. Though it is far harder for Egyptians living abroad to access polling stations, the turnout so far is well below the 70% participation rate the constitution's backers have said they hope for.
Sisi is reviled by supporters and sympathisers with Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, who have faced a harsh crackdown since July. More than a thousand have been killed and thousands more arrested, and the group was recently declared a terrorist organisation.
Secular activists who joined calls for Morsi's deposition have also begun to criticise Sisi and the government he installed, after the suppression of the Brotherhood spread to non-Islamists.