June 18, 2012 / 10:24 AM / 5 years ago

Newsmaker: Egypt military ruler keeps grip on power

CAIRO (Reuters) - Painted on a wall on the edge of Cairo’s Tahrir Square is a large portrait that illustrates how many view the man who has ruled Egypt since Hosni Mubarak was overthrown last year.

Half the face is of the ousted president juxtaposed to the other portion showing Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the 76-year-old who was Mubarak’s defense minister for 20 years.

After ending Mubarak’s 30-year rule 16 months ago, many feel they have replaced him with a carbon copy, just as reluctant to relinquish power or to rein in the extensive business interests and privileges that the army has built up over six decades.

Even as Egyptians picked a new president in two days of voting that ended on Sunday, the army council led by Tantawi was clawing back powers from the presidency with a declaration limiting the presidential remit. To many it smacked of a military coup - but without having to move a single tank.

“The military hands over power, to the military,” wrote Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper in a headline over a picture of Tantawi on Monday, mocking his vow to hand over control to a civilian president by July 1. The oft-repeated pledge now looks hollow.

Instead, the paper noted, the “constitutional declaration” means the generals will probably have lawmaking powers until 2013, given a timetable it laid out for drafting a constitution, holding a referendum on it and, finally, electing a parliament to replace the Islamist-led one Tantawi dissolved last week.

Even if, as the Muslim Brotherhood claimed, its candidate Mohamed Morsy has won the presidential election, Tantawi will remain in the driving seat of the Arab world’s most populous state as it stumbles through a political transition that first drew angry and often violent protests but now seems to have given way to exhaustion, frustration and desperation for order.


Tantawi spoke little in public in the days when Mubarak, himself a product of the armed forces, was in charge. But he often appeared by his side at military parades and other events.

That has changed little now he heads the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), a body so deep in the shadows that Egyptians struggle to be sure which generals are part of it.

Some activists have also been infuriated by newspaper photos of Tantawi opening roads and other projects, images that bear a striking resemblance to kind of inaugurations Mubarak attended.

As Egyptians voted on Sunday, a stony-faced Tantawi was filmed in Saudi Arabia sitting next to King Abdullah to pay condolences after the death of the Saudi crown prince. Again, it was Tantawi as chief representative of the Egyptian state.

He was too close to the former president to be personally popular with protesters who led the uprising in Tahrir Square, even though the army’s move to appease the demonstrators by deposing Mubarak won the military their gratitude as an institution. But desire for change and respect for troops under Tantawi’s command trumped concerns many had when he took power.

“People expected that after the downfall of Mubarak that he might be changed and he might be serious about leading the country to change,” said Khalil al-Anani, an Egyptian analyst at Britain’s Durham University.

An artist paints a mural depicting the faces of former president Hosni Mubarak and Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi in Cairo May 22, 2012. Painted on a wall on the edge of Cairo's Tahrir Square is a large portrait that illustrates how many view the man who has ruled Egypt since Hosni Mubarak was overthrown last year. Half the face is of the ousted president juxtaposed to the other portion showing Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the 76-year-old who was Mubarak's defence minister for 20 years. After ending Mubarak's 30-year rule 16 months ago, many feel they have replaced him with a carbon copy. Picture taken May 22, 2012. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

Instead, he said, Egyptians discovered Tantawi had “the same mentality as Mubarak, who would like to keep things as it is”.

That view had been echoed, back in 2008, well before the Arab Spring in a leaked diplomatic cable from the U.S. ambassador to Cairo. Francis Ricciardone described Tantawi as “charming and courtly” but “aged and change-resistant”.

The U.S. envoy was in a good position to know, as the United States gives Egypt’s military $1.3 billion in aid each year.

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

Tantawi is of the same generation as the 84-year-old Mubarak, now jailed for life for failing to stop his security services killing protesters in the uprising against him. After dozens more deaths over the past year on Tantawi’s watch, he and the other generals are determined that a transfer of power will not land them in the dock, diplomats say.


Both Tantawi and Mubarak are decorated veterans of wars against Israel in 1956, 1967 and 1973. The army remains widely admired for its role in conflicts portrayed - by a succession of military rulers - as a struggle against colonialism.

But the field marshal is now leading a nation where the bulk of the population of 82 million is too young to have any recollection of the last war. Many youths’ memories are being shaped by protests and occasional street battles with police.

“The problem is a gap between two generations: one thinking about a new Egypt and another that leans toward the continuation within the old regime,” said Nabil Abdel Fattah, an expert at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

“He is the son of the military institution and is interested in the military keeping its status and the shape of the military relationship within the new political system.”

Tantawi has sought to give a more down-to-earth image. He was caught in video footage walking in a civilian suit near Tahrir Square in September, chatting jovially to passers-by.

But the shot was lampooned by web activists as a stunt to boost his popularity. They said the suit, a stark contrast to the military uniforms he is normally seen in, looked brand new.

“Did they want me to wear a torn-up suit?” Tantawi responded in remarks made a week or so after the criticism.

One instance that angered many Egyptians was his testimony in the trial of Mubarak, in which he spoke to the judges behind closed doors and failed to provide evidence that might have condemned his mentor for ordering the killing of protesters.

Mubarak was convicted of the lesser charge of failing to prevent their deaths and avoided the execution many had wanted.

Editing by Alastair Macdonald

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