Egypt army chief may have more sway than president

CAIRO Fri Jun 29, 2012 6:52pm BST

CAIRO (Reuters) - A picture popular with protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square captures how many view the military 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.

Tantawi had been due formally to hand over to Mohamed Mursi after the Muslim Brotherhood man is sworn in as Egypt's first freely elected president on Saturday. But army sources said the handover had been delayed, giving no reason or a new date.

After ending Mubarak's 30-year rule 16 months ago, many Egyptians came to feel they had replaced him with a carbon copy, just as reluctant to relinquish power or the extensive business interests and privileges built up by the army over six decades.

Even as voters chose Mursi in a run-off vote on June 16 and 17, 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 "soft" military coup.

"The military hands over power, to the military," wrote Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper at the time, mocking Tantawi's oft-repeated promise to hand over to an elected president by July 1.

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 dissolved by a court this month.

Even after Mursi becomes head of state on paper, Tantawi will remain supreme commander of the armed forces until a new constitution is written, according to the military's decree.

The military man may well have the upper hand as he competes with Mursi for influence in 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.

LITTLE CHANGED

Tantawi rarely spoke 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 Mubarak-era inaugurations.

He was too close to the former president to be personally popular with protesters who led the uprising in Tahrir Square, even though they cheered the army for pushing Mubarak aside.

Khalil al-Anani, an analyst at Britain's Durham University, said Egyptians had initially thought Tantawi might be serious about leading the country towards change after the president's fall. Instead, they discovered he had "the same mentality as Mubarak, who would like to keep things as they are".

That view had been echoed, back in 2008, well before the Arab uprisings 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 envoy was in a good position to judge, 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 16 months 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.

GENERATION GAP

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 most of Egypt's 82 million people are too young to remember the last war. Youthful memories are now 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.

"Tantawi 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 project 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.

Many Egyptians were angered when Tantawi testified behind closed doors at Mubarak's trial and failed to give evidence that might have condemned his mentor for ordering protesters killed.

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

(Editing by Alistair Lyon)

FILED UNDER: