CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's interim leader on Sunday said the country will pick a president before parliament, a widely expected change in a political transition plan as public support for army chief and July coup leader Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi grows stronger. But Egypt remains dangerously divided, as seen in clashes that killed at least 49 people a day earlier and militant attacks in the country's restive Sinai Peninsula that left several soldiers dead.
The decision follows weeks of deliberations with different political groups who had pushed for holding presidential, not parliamentary elections first, as had been originally planned. Many argued that electing a president would be a panacea for the country's dangerously divided politics.
The transition plan, adopted after the ouster of Egypt's first freely elected president, Islamist Mohammed Morsi, calls for both elections within six months of the adoption of a new constitution. The charter was passed on Jan. 18. The presidential election is now expected before the end of April, while a parliamentary vote should come before the end of July.
The announcement came amid rising expectations that el-Sissi will run for president after leading the coup that toppled Morsi following massive protests against him.
"Having presidential elections first will lead to stability faster," said Ahmed Gamaleddin, the leader of an alliance of political parties comprised mostly of former security and military officials, some of whom had worked under autocrat Hosni Mubarak, who led Egypt for nearly 30 years.
Gamaleddin told The Associated Press that his group, "Egypt my Country", will encourage el-Sissi to run for office because he has enough popular backing. The alliance was a main sponsor of the calls to rally in support of the general on Saturday, the third anniversary of the uprising against Mubarak, who preceded Morsi.
The rallies saw ecstatic crowds gather across the country, carrying posters of the general and already calling him "my president."
But divisions still run deep. The celebrations competed with widespread clashes between security forces and Morsi supporters, who have vowed to keep up their protests against the interim authorities. The fighting killed at least 49 people.
Islamist politician Mohammed Mahsoob, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood-led coalition that is rallying for Morsi's return to office, said the decision only exposes the difficulty the current authorities are facing.
"Changing the roadmap is to set up the leader of the coup as president and (this) only shows their predicament after the people ... only chipped away at their legitimacy, foiling their referendum, and exposing their hostility to the revolution," he wrote on his Twitter account.
Egypt's ultraconservative Salafi party, the only Islamist group to back Morsi's ouster in the popularly backed coup, said despite having supported the idea of holding a parliamentary vote first, it will now go along with the majority consensus.
Younes Makhyoun, the head of the party, told The AP that his party "must now think of the future."
"We would have preferred a parliament first so that the coming president doesn't combine legislative and executive powers at the same time," Makhyoun said. "The declared goal is that the people now need a president more than a parliament to have the leadership necessary to achieve stability."
Turmoil has only been deepened since Morsi's ouster, with a rise in militant attacks which have spread from the restive northern Sinai into the capital. Authorities blame Morsi's Brotherhood of orchestrating the violence to destabilize the current government. It has already declared the group a terrorist organization, a charge it denies, saying it is only protesting peacefully.
Terror groups have become more brazen in recent weeks. On Friday, attacks in the capital, including a spectacular bombing of the city's main security headquarters, killed six. Another attack on an army bus in northern Sinai killed three soldiers on Sunday.
An al-Qaida inspired group that previously operated mostly in Sinai, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, or Champions of Jerusalem, claimed responsibility for most of the attacks.
In a qualitative change of operations if it is verified, the group claimed responsibility for downing a military helicopter in Sinai Saturday that killed five crewmen. El-Sissi attended their funeral Sunday. Authorities say they are still investigating the causes of the crash.
Even secular groups who are against the general's bid for office consider it essential to have presidential elections before a parliamentary vote. Hossam Mounes, a member of the Popular Current, which backs a civilian candidate for president, said the presidential vote will give the current authorities "clear legitimacy."
"Parliamentary elections at this stage will only add to the divisions and fragmentation of the political groups," Mounes said, adding that securing that vote will also be less of a security challenge.
He argued however against an el-Sissi bid for office, criticizing his management of the transition so far.
"He is an unknown person. We don't know his positions regarding political issues because of his military post. We have not heard his views on economic issues or foreign affairs."
But with growing anxiety over the continued turmoil, calls for el-Sissi to run have only grown. The thousands who hit the streets to support him adhere to a widespread media narrative that portrays him as a strongman who can deal with the country's myriads of problems — restoring stability and legitimizing the interim government installed after Morsi's ouster.
"I describe him as the man for this anxious moment," said Abdullah el-Sinawi, a commentator on military affairs.
The general has not yet made a formal announcement. He would have to quit his post as defense minister before launching a campaign for the presidency. Under the new constitution, a president can serve a maximum of two four-year terms.
Associated Press Writer Maggie Hyde contributed to this report from Cairo.