U.S. sees Egypt's Tantawi as resistant to change

WASHINGTON Fri Feb 11, 2011 5:17pm EST

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. officials see the head of Egypt's military council as an ally committed to avoiding another war with Israel but have in the past portrayed him privately as being resistant to political and economic reform.

Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Higher Military Council that took control of Egypt on Friday after President Hosni Mubarak was swept from power, has spoken with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates by telephone five times since the crisis began, including as recently as Thursday evening, according to the Pentagon.

The ties are long-standing and important to Washington, which gives about $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt each year. Senior U.S. defense and military officials had no immediate comment about Mubarak's decision to step down.

Pentagon officials have also been tight-lipped about the content of the talks between Tantawi and Gates.

The U.S. defense chief has publicly praised Egypt's military for being a stabilizing force during the unrest. On Tuesday, Gates said Egypt's military had "made a contribution to the evolution of democracy."

In private, U.S. officials have characterized Tantawi as someone who was "reluctant to change" and uncomfortable with the U.S. focus on fighting terrorism, according to a 2008 State Department cable released by the WikiLeaks website.

Tantawi, 75, has served in three conflicts with Israel, starting with the 1956 Suez Crisis and in both the 1967 and 1973 Middle East wars.

The State Department cable said he is "committed to preventing another one ever."

'AGED AND CHANGE-RESISTANT'

Still, diplomats warned ahead of a 2008 visit to Washington that U.S. officials should be prepared to meet a "an aged and change-resistant Tantawi."

"Charming and courtly, he is nonetheless mired in a post-Camp David military paradigm that has served his cohort's narrow interests for the last three decades," the cable said, in reference to Israel's 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," the cable 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. It said he had signaled a willingness to use the military to control the Muslim Brotherhood ahead of 2008 local elections.

Tantawi was skeptical of Egypt's economic reform program early in the decade, believing the relaxation of government controls on prices and production fostered social instability, the cable said.

"He will argue that any conditions on military assistance are counter-productive. He will also state that the military is not behind human rights problems in Egypt" and will resist U.S. congressional efforts to impose human rights conditions, the cable said.

"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."

(Editing by John O'Callaghan and Will Dunham)

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