Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi – Egypt’s defense minister, army commander and head of its Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, has emerged as de facto leader of Egypt since Hosni Mubarak stepped down as president Friday and handed control of the country to the military.

Beyond the country’s borders, however, little is know about the man who will guide Egypt through a delicate transition period lasting at least until the national elections called for September.

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Tantawi, 75, was raised in Cairo to a family of Nubian origin. In 1956 he joined the army as an infantryman, then completed an officers course and a master’s in military science.

He served in the Egyptian-Israeli wars of 1956, 1967 and 1973, and in the 1991 Gulf War, helped command US-allied forces in Saudi Arabia that helped remove Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait.

Tantawi has been defense minister since 1991, and general commander of the armed forces since 1995.

Over the three decades of Mubarak’s rule, Tantawi’s steadfast loyalty earned him the moniker of “Mubarak’s poodle,” according to a March 2008 US State Department cable released as part of last year’s WikiLeaks trove of leaked diplomatic documents.

The described him as “charming and courtly,” but “aged and change-resistant.”

“He and Mubarak are focused on regime stability and maintaining the status quo through the end of their time,” the cable said. “They simply do not have the energy, inclination or world view to do anything differently.”

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The cable portrayed Tantawi as an ally committed to preventing another war with Israel, while at the same time noting that his commitment to the regional status quo could also be a liability. The defense minister, it said, remains “mired in a post-Camp David military paradigm that has served his cohort’s narrow interests for the last three decades,” in reference to Israel’s 1979 peace accord with Egypt.

“In the cabinet, where he still wields significant influence, Tantawi has opposed both economic and political reforms that he perceives as eroding central government power,” it said. “He is supremely concerned with national unity and has opposed policy initiatives he views as encouraging political or religious cleavages within Egyptian society.”

The cable said Tantawi viewed the military’s role as protecting constitutional legitimacy and internal stability, and that he had signaled a willingness to use the military to control the Muslim Brotherhood ahead of 2008 local elections.

Still, despite Tantawi’s ties to the regime, ABC News reported Friday that he is widely viewed as clean of the human rights allegations that have tainted Egypt’s intelligence and police agencies. He has long been mentioned as a leading candidate to succeed Mubarak, though his age and ill health could prove problematic. The BBC reported that Tantawi is viewed as lacking political ambition, and has meager support among the army’s rank and file.

Nonetheless, throughout the recent unrest Egyptians have upheld the army as a unifying force, less brutal and corrupt than the Military Police or pro-Mubarak mobs. That reputation may help Tantawi to enjoy a honeymoon with his people.

The reverie will soon end, however, if he cannot deliver the democratic reforms and civilian government Egypt’s protesters have demanded.

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