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