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Army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi lays bare his ambition to rule over a divided Egypt

Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood supporters, who accuse the army of staging a coup, have held frequent protests calling for his reinstatement

Egypt’s army chief, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, gave his clearest signal yet over the weekend of his interest in becoming president, a move that could turn the clock back to the days when the presidency was controlled by men from the military.

General Sisi, who ousted Egypt’s first democratically elected leader, Mohamed Morsi, last July after mass protests against his one-year rule, is widely expected to seek the top job but has not yet announced plans to run.

“If I run then it must be at the request of the people and with a mandate from my army... We work in a democracy,” he said, speaking at an army seminar in Cairo.

After the army overthrew the Islamist Mr Morsi, it appointed an interim president and outlined a roadmap for democratic transition.

Mr Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood supporters, who accuse the army of staging a coup, have held frequent protests calling for his reinstatement. But security forces have launched a crackdown against the group, arresting thousands on charges of violence.

Egypt is set to hold a two-day referendum on a new constitution beginning tomorrow, a major milestone in the roadmap which will clear the way for presidential and parliamentary elections. Analysts and politicians say it is unlikely that General Sisi will announce plans to run before the referendum is complete.

The consultation marks the first time Egyptians have had a chance to vote since Mr Morsi’s removal and is seen to be as much a public vote of confidence in the roadmap and General Sisi as in the charter itself.

The state Mena news agency quoted the general on Saturday, as he urged Egyptians to “assume national responsibility and turn out in force to vote in the constitutional referendum in order to correct the democratic path and build a modern democratic state”.

There is little doubt the popular General Sisi would win the presidential election. He is seen as a strong man capable of bringing stability to Egypt after more than three years of turmoil. He has had songs dedicated to him and his face appears on chocolates and posters on Egypt’s city streets.

While General Sisi enjoys broad support from Egyptians who are happy to see an end to Islamist rule, he is reviled by Mr Morsi’s supporters, who view him as the mastermind of a bloody military coup against the country’s first freely elected head of state.

General Sisi’s candidacy would further deepen the divisions between the many Egyptians who believe a firm hand is needed to steer the country, and Islamists bearing the brunt of state suppression of dissent.

Security forces have launched a massive crackdown against Mr Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, which it calls a terrorist group, arresting its leaders and forcing others underground.

In an interview with pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat on Saturday, the chairman of the constituent assembly which drafted the constitution said he expected General Sisi to run for president in response to popular demand.

“We must adhere to popular opinion who want the man and this is a commission for the man. There is no escape from that... The people say they want Sisi and we must submit to that,” Amr Moussa told Al-Hayat.