CAIRO (Reuters) - The fate of Egypt’s pro-democracy movement may rest on the shoulders of the country’s top soldier, who has so far refused to use force against protesters demanding the removal of President Hosni Mubarak.
In a rare balancing act, Lieutenant General Sami Enan, the armed forces chief-of-staff, has won praise from both the United States and a leading member of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, who said he could be an acceptable successor to Mubarak.
Enan was in Washington when anti-Mubarak demonstrations erupted last week in the wake of Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution” that overthrew President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
The former air defense officer cut short his visit and rushed home before the military issued a crucial statement on Monday calling the protesters’ demands legitimate and saying troops would not open fire on the people.
Now that Mubarak has announced he will not seek re-election in September, the army is telling demonstrators their message has been heard and they must leave the streets. But it is unclear if soldiers will confront them if protests continue.
Enan, who trained in the former Soviet Union and studied at France’s elite inter-service war college as well as Egypt’s Nasser High Military Academy, will face crucial decisions.
All four Egyptian presidents since 1952, when officers staged a coup to topple the British-backed monarchy, have come from the armed forces. Mubarak was the air force chief in 1975 when Anwar Sadat made him vice-president. President Sadat’s assassination in 1981 thrust him unexpectedly into power.
The top U.S. military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, said Enan had given him assurances in a private conversation about the Egyptian military’s commitment to promoting stability.
“He assures me that they’re very focused on this, and that they will continue to be a stabilizing influence within their country,” said Mullen, in podcast recorded on Monday for the Pentagon Channel television network.
“So far the Egyptian military has handled themselves exceptionally well,” Mullen said.
At the same time, prominent Islamist cleric Kamel el-Helbawy, an exiled member of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood, said Enan could be an acceptable successor to Mubarak because he is perceived as incorruptible.
“He can be the future man of Egypt,” Helbawy told Reuters on Tuesday. “I think he will be acceptable ... because he has enjoyed some good reputation. He is not involved in corruption. The people do not know him (as corrupt).”
Little is known abroad about Enan, whose sparse official biography on the high command’s website says he was born in Cairo in 1948.
He had the classic career path of an officer in the air defense forces, commanding anti-aircraft missile batteries and rising to become armed forces chief-of-staff in 2005. His only service abroad was a two-year stint as military attache in Morocco in 1990-92.
An Israeli security source said Enan was regarded as a professional, apolitical officer, not charismatic but competent and trusted by the United States.
“The Americans know him well. They like him,” the source said.
Unlike the former spymaster whom Mubarak appointed as his vice-president on Saturday, retired general Omar Suleiman, Enan has had no known dealings with Israel. That may make him more acceptable to ordinary Egyptians.
A Middle East military expert in Washington who has met Enan, speaking on condition of anonymity, also described him as someone who appeared to have the respect of the United States.
Enan ranks below Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, 75, who is defense minister and commander-in-chief. Under the constitution, the president has, in principle, overall control.
Egypt has the world’s 10th biggest armed forces with more than 468,000 members, many of them poor conscripts whose obedience if ordered to use force against demonstrators is uncertain.
Washington has provided some $1.3 billion a year in military aid to Cairo ever since Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979.
Additional reporting by William Maclean in London and Phil Stewart in Washington; writing by Paul Taylor; editing by Alastair Macdonald