Africa

Egypt's former military ruler Tantawi, key figure in 2011, dies at 85

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Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi (C) attends the funeral of Egypt's former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman in Cairo July 21, 2012. REUTERS /Mohamed Abd El Ghany/File Photo

  • Tantawi headed ruling military council after Mubarak ousted
  • He had served as Mubarak's defence minister for two decades
  • Sisi leads mourners at military funeral in Cairo

CAIRO, Sept 21 (Reuters) - Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the former head of the military council that ruled Egypt temporarily after its 2011 popular uprising, has died at the age of 85, Egypt's presidency said on Tuesday, declaring three days of national mourning.

President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi led mourners at a military funeral ceremony for Tantawi in a mosque bearing his name in Cairo on Tuesday afternoon, and cannons fired 21 shots.

Tantawi - a decorated veteran of wars against Israel in 1956, 1967 and 1973 - was defence minister for 21 years, covering most of the long presidency of Hosni Mubarak.

He led the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that ruled Egypt for a year-and-a-half after Mubarak was pushed from power in February 2011 during the Arab Spring protest movement.

Tantawi was too close to Mubarak to be personally popular with protesters who led the uprising in Tahrir Square, though the army's move to appease the demonstrators by deposing Mubarak won some support for the military as an institution.

But while Tantawi sought to project a more down-to-earth image after assuming power, being pictured chatting with passers-by near Tahrir Square, many saw him as a continuity figure seeking to preserve the privileges of the military.

Tantawi was sacked as defence minister in August 2012, a few weeks after the Islamist Mohamed Mursi became president in what was described as the first free and fair presidential election in Egypt's modern history.

Tantawi then disappeared from view until the then-military chief Sisi took power after leading the army to overthrow Mursi in 2013 amid mass protests. Sisi became president a year later.

HONOURED BY SISI

Tantawi was honoured by Sisi, appearing beside him at various public events. On Tuesday Sisi said a major military base in east Cairo would be named after Tantawi.

In a statement, Sisi hailed Tantawi as "a statesman who took the responsibility of running the country during a very difficult period".

Sisi also defended Tantawi's time in power, which witnessed a series of bloody incidents amid the political turmoil that followed the uprising.

"This man is innocent of any bloodshed... any of the things that took place during this period of conspiracy to bring down the state," Sisi said in televised comments.

Sisi said Tantawi had fretted over history's judgment of his record as the man who had handed power to Mursi's Muslim Brotherhood group in 2012.

"This issue hurt him very, very much because he... understood the damage this group's rule would cause Egypt," Sisi said.

After Mursi's overthrow, Sisi outlawed the Brotherhood and jailed much of its leadership.

Reporting by Cairo Bureau Writing by Mahmoud Mourad Editing by Angus MacSwan and Gareth Jones

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