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 criticized 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 phone five times since the crisis began, including as late as on Thursday evening.
The ties are long-standing and important to Washington, which provides about $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt each year.
Pentagon officials have been tight-lipped about the talks between Tantawi and Gates but 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.”
But in private, U.S. officials have characterized Tantawi as someone “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.”
Still, diplomats warned ahead of a 2008 visit by Tantawi 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 the Israel’s peace accord with Egypt.
Washington has long urged change in Egypt. But the cable notes that Tantawi “has opposed both economic and political reform that he perceives as eroding central government power.”
Editing by John O'Callaghan and Vicki Allen