Egypt will hold a presidential vote before electing parliament, Adly Mansour, the interim president, said yesterday, reneging on a road map and increasing the likelihood that army chief General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi will be elected as head of state within months.
The announcement came after nearly 50 people died in weekend clashes between supporters and opponents of the military as the country marked the third anniversary of demonstrations that led to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak.
Parliamentary elections were supposed to happen first under the timetable agreed after the army deposed Islamist President Mohammed Mursi in July following mass protests against his rule.
"I have taken my decision to amend the road map for the future in that we will start by holding the presidential elections first followed by the parliamentary elections," Mansour said in a televised speech.
The announcement was expected and many think that Sisi will run for president. Ecstatic crowds had gathered across the country on Saturday in government-sponsored rallies to mark Mubarak's overthrow, with many openly calling for Sisi to run for office.
But Egypt remains divided, as seen by the widespread clashes that struck across the country on Saturday as well.
The health ministry said 49 people were killed when security forces moved to disperse protests across the country by supporters of Mursi and activists who spearheaded the 2011 uprising. The police also arrested 1,079 "rioters", said the interior ministry.
A Muslim Brotherhood-led coalition has held almost daily protests since Mursi's ousting on July 3, demanding he be reinstated. The protests have often devolved into violence.
The government blacklisted Mursi's Muslim Brotherhood movement as a terrorist group in December after a suicide bombing killed 15 people in a police headquarters north of Cairo.
Widening their crackdown, authorities have also targeted secular activists, detaining some figures of the 2011 uprising for organising or taking part in unlicensed protests, after a disputed law adopted in November banned all but police-sanctioned rallies.
"The regime has substantial and now energised support, a majority of the politically active citizens of this country," said Michael Hanna, an expert on Egypt with The Century Foundation, a US-based think tank. "But there are still resilient sources of opposition that they are choosing to deal with violently."
Police, who have killed hundreds of Islamists in street clashes since Mursi's overthrow, have encouraged Egyptians to turn out in support of the interim government, and some politicians have called for rallies to back Sisi. His popularity has skyrocketed among Egyptians craving stability months of unrest.
In Tahrir on Saturday, tanks guarded the entrances to the square as demonstrators waved Egyptian flags and carried posters of Sisi.
"The people demand the execution of the Brotherhood," demonstrators chanted, as several took their pictures with security forces and tanks.
The military took power until Mursi's election in June 2012, but then toppled him a year later after millions took to the streets demanding his resignation, accusing him of betraying the "revolution" that toppled Mubarak.
Mubarak, who ruled for three decades, was forced to step down on February 11, 2011, after 18 days of demonstrations that left some 850 people dead.
Meanwhile Minister of Antiquities Mohammed Ibrahim says a team from Unesco, the United Nations' cultural arm, will travel to Cairo to assess damage inflicted on the city's Islamic Art Museum by a blast targeting a nearby security headquarters.
Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse