Israel must keep eye on Egypt’s old guard

Analysis: Tantawi, Enan and Suleiman are the key figures to watch as elections approach.

February 14, 2011 03:45
3 minute read.
Egypt Defense Minister Field Marshal Tantawi

Tantawi 311. (photo credit: Nile TV/AP)

In 1973, Defense Minister Ehud Barak was a young battalion commander fighting against the Egyptian Army in the Battle of the Chinese Farm. On the other side of the farm, leading the enemy at the time, was his Egyptian counterpart, Defense Minister Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi – who was then, like Barak, a battalion commander.

When the two spoke on Saturday night, though, Barak was not speaking just to Egypt’s defense minister, but to its new de facto leader after the government was replaced by the military. Tantawi today serves as the head of Egypt’s Higher Military Council.

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In the short term, Israel does not need to be concerned with the current upheaval in Egypt.

First of all, the military has pledged its commitment to the peace treaty with Israel. In addition, the Muslim Brotherhood has said that it does not plan on running a candidate for president in the upcoming elections – it is still unclear when they will be held – nor is it seeking a majority in parliament.

But in the long term, it is impossible to know where Egypt is heading and what type of government will emerge from the next elections.

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In the Israeli defense establishment, three Egyptian officials have been designated as the key figures to watch in Cairo. The first is Tantawi. He is well-known by Barak and other senior figures in the Defense Ministry, as are his not-overly-affable feelings toward Israel.

In recent years, Israeli officials have more than once complained about Tantawi’s refusal to crack down on weapons smuggling along the border. “There were cases when President Hosni Mubarak handed down an order to increase efforts, and Tantawi chose to turn something of a blind eye,” one official recalled.

A 2008 US diplomatic cable, published recently by Wikileaks, describes Tantawi as “charming and courtly,” but at the same time as “aged and change-resistant.”

He is described as being excessively focused, like Mubarak, on the stability of the regime and ensuring the continuation of the status quo without any desire to do things differently.

The other official that Israel is watching now is the commander of the Egyptian military, Gen. Sami Enan. His clout is believed to be slightly lower than Tantawi’s within the Egyptian corridors of power, but is at the same time closely aligned with the United States.

The main mystery regarding the Egyptian military is about discipline and whether the old guard – officers like Tantawi and Enan – will be able to control the younger generation of officers who have not been trained in the United States and can still come from clans that are not necessarily aligned with the regime.

The third official whose prestige has taken a blow is Omar Suleiman, the intelligence-minister- turned-deputy-prime-minister who will now have to decide whether he will run for president in the next elections or decide to retire. Suleiman has been a fierce opponent of Islamists in recent years, and Israel would like to see him in a position of power in the new regime.

The immediate issues that the sides will have to discuss involve the deployment of military forces in Egypt, to which Israel agreed after receiving a special request from Cairo. Israel is concerned that the Sinai will turn into a breeding ground for global Jihad elements, but at the same time will need to ensure that the forces withdraw and that the parameters of the peace treaty are maintained.

There is also the question of the Gaza Strip and how the new regime will act toward Hamas.

Will it turn a blind eye to smuggling, or will it crack down even more than before? In the long term, Israel will need to keep an eye on Egyptian military buildup – what platforms it buys, with which countries it conducts training exercises, and with whom it decides to share intelligence.

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