x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

At Egypt's helm, a soldier unwilling to give up his command

Despite elections, Egypt's military leader still holds the country in a grip of iron. Is General Tantawi paving the road to democracy or standing in its path?

Despite elections, Egypt’s military leader still holds the country in a grip of iron. Is General Tantawi paving the road to democracy or standing in its path? James Langton profiles a soldier who seems reluctant to give up his command.

On a wall at the edge of Cairo's Tahrir Square, an artist this week painted a grotesque caricature of what most Egyptians believe and many fear.

One side of this giant, looming head are the unmistakable features of Hosni Mubarak, the fallen pharaoh whose life has almost ebbed away as surely as his power had already done.

On the other, skin painted in a cadaverous green to match his army beret, the face morphed into Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces of Egypt and the country's acting president.

In both halves, the eyes gleam with unspoken threats and the mouth set somewhere between contempt and anger. Underneath, the caption asks: "Who is responsible?"

Who indeed? For whatever the face of General Tantawi represents, it is hardly a fresh one. Mubarak aside, there could not be a more potent symbol of Egypt's recent past; indeed, not so recent. The military has effectively run the country for nearly 60 years, controlling not just the politics of the nation but also great swathes of its economy; up to 40 per cent, according to some estimates. In this role, the general is more like a CEO, protecting a vast business empire that includes everything from bottled water to five-star hotels.

Now it seems the military will not bend to the ballot box as easily as was once thought. General Tantawi still insists he will hand over the presidency by the end of the month, but whether the office will have much meaning is now open to debate.

After dissolving the newly elected parliament, Scaf - as the supreme military council is generally known - this week effectively gave itself the right of veto over any changes to the constitution. To many, it looked like nothing so much as a coup.

Yet it was not meant to be like this. Tantawi's appointment as president in February last year was greeted with jubilation by the crowds in Tahrir Square. There was even talk that he might present himself as a credible candidate for the presidency.

Interviewed last August, Mohamed El Baradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Commission and also, briefly, considered a candidate for high office, said he believed the general wanted only to step aside.

Tantawi's view, he said, was that the army's post-revolutionary position was: "This is a hot potato, we want to get rid of it in six months' time."

Egypt's generals, El Baradei added, "know that they are not equipped to run the country - a place laden with every sort of problem".

"I have a gut feeling," El Baradei continued, "that the military doesn't have the ambition and they know that the people don't have the stomach to accept another military guy after 60 years of military rule."

In recent days, though, it seems that another calculation has been made - that the Egyptian people may be so exhausted by the chaos of revolution and sufficiently unnerved at the prospect of government by the Muslim Brotherhood - or no government at all - that they may now be willing to accept a much greater role from the military than was once thought. General Tantawi may yet relinquish the presidency, but control of the country may be another matter.

As for Tantawi, who is married with two adult sons, he would probably see himself a patriot, a loyal servant of the state and the values of the revolution - not last year's but the one that overthrew King Farouk in July 1952.

He has always been this way. Born in Cairo to a middle-class family of Nubian descent in October 1935, Tantawi's rise through the ranks has been textbook. Joining the army, he studied military science at army college before being commissioned as an officer in 1956. At the age of 22 he was fighting the British, French and Israeli armies as they swept down on the Suez Canal.

There were more battles in the 1967 War and the 1973 War, after which he was attached to the chief of staff and then given command of the Egyptian Second Army. For his loyalty he was next rewarded with the command of the Republican Guard.

Later, he commanded Egyptian forces during the first Gulf War of 1991. Months later, Mubarak appointed him defence minister and commander of the armed forces, raising him to the rank of field marshal. An assassination attempt by the Egyptian Islamic Jihad in 1995 saw Tantawi discussed as the possible next president.

A decade later, and with Mubarak still firmly in power, Tantawi had become regarded as an obstacle to reform, even by Egypt's allies. A leaked cable on the WikiLeaks website, dating from March 2008, shows the US ambassador to Cairo saw Tantawi, then 73, as "aged and change-resistant" and that younger Egyptian army officers mocked him as "Mubarak's poodle".

"Charming and courtly," the ambassador confided to Washington, "he is nonetheless mired in a post-Camp David military paradigm that has served his cohort's narrow interests for the last three decades. He and Mubarak are focused on regime stability and maintaining the status quo through the end of their time. They simply do not have the energy, inclination or world view to do anything differently."

Accusing Tantawi of using his powers to block political and economic reform, the cable noted the general was "supremely concerned with national unity and has opposed policy initiatives he views as encouraging political or religious cleavages within Egyptian society".

Tantawi would doubtless defend his actions on the grounds that he was defending the stability of the republic. Not that he ever says very much, in public at least. Behind the scenes, though, there is some evidence that his loyalty to Mubarak was being tested even before the revolution.

According to Mahmoud Zaher, a former general with a background in intelligence, the relationship between the two men began to deteriorate after Mubarak's wife, Suzanne, began plotting for her eldest son, Gamal, to succeed the presidency.

Tantawi, Zaher told an interviewer for the New York Review of Books last year, regarded Gamal as a political lightweight, but also became concerned that his plans to privatise many industries threatened the military's economic empire.

Tantawi and other senior officers are said to have repeatedly warned Mubarak that Gamal was not up to the job. Resignations were offered, and although Mubarak rejected them, Zaher insists that "distrust and discord between Tantawi and Mubarak grew intense" although adding: "Anybody in such a high position would be careful to conceal it."

Whatever the truth of the story, there is no doubt that the revolution of 2011 saw Tantawi transformed from the role of "Mubarak's poodle" to the best hope of a peaceful transition to democracy.

It helped that the army was independent from the security forces responsible for much of the brutality against protesters. Then, on February 4 last year, Tantawi inspected troops stationed around Tahrir Square and the Egyptian Museum, a gesture that was widely interpreted as meaning that the military would not allow protesters to be attacked again.

Within a week, Mubarak was gone, but the honeymoon that Tantawi enjoyed barely lasted that summer. In November, following more bloody protests that left dozens dead, Tantawi made a televised address to the nation, promising that the military council was "fully prepared to hand over powers immediately and return to its basic mission, which is to protect the country's borders and its people".

In Tahrir Square, thousands of demonstrations noisily voiced their scepticism, with chants of "leave" and "half a revolution is not enough".

Another demonstration in December, to protest against attacks by the army against women, showed how much the acting president had become identified with the ancien régime with chants of "Tantawi stripped your women naked".

Since then, the field marshall's actions have seemed increasingly at odds with his words. In another major speech last month, he attempted to reassure the nation about his intentions, promising free and fair elections that would "offer an example to the world". However, earlier this month a decree from Tantawi dissolved parliament after the previous winter's elections, which saw the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party gain control, were declared unconstitutional.

Earlier this week, the ruling military council promised again that it would hand over power to the as yet unannounced winner of the presidential election. Once again, Field Marshall Tantawi and his brothers in arms seem like men ready to finally concede power to the people. But after 60 years in charge, do they really believe the country can manage without them?

The Biog

October 31, 1935 Born in Cairo

April 1956 Receives his commission in the Egyptian army before fighting in the Suez invasion

1967 and 1973 Serves in the two wars with Israel

1991 After commanding Egyptian forces in the first Gulf War is promoted to field marshal and made commander in chief of the armed forces and minister of defence

February 4, 2011 Inspects troops in Tahrir Square, signalling that the army will not permit further attacks on protesters

February 11, 2011 Appointed acting president after the resignation of Mubarak

November 2011 After more protests, appears on television to promise that the army is ready to step down from politics

May 17, 2012 Promises handover to newly elected civilian president by the end of June

June 17, 2012 Signs decree dissolving parliament on the grounds that elections were unconstitutional