CAIRO (Reuters) - A striking image hoisted in Cairo’s Tahrir Square when protests against military rule erupted showed an ageing, male face; one half was Hosni Mubarak‘s, the other that of the man now in charge of Egypt - Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.
It sums up a growing sentiment as transition to civilian rule has dragged on: Tantawi, defending the armed forces’ vast economic interests after 60 years in power, has betrayed the trust of a nation and is acting in the same way as the former president he served as defence minister for two decades.
Egypt’s capital and several other cities have been convulsed by five days of protests demanding that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took control when Mubarak was ousted in February, hand over power to civilians. They want Tantawi out.
“The people want to topple the marshal,” protesters, most of them less than half the commander’s age, have chanted. Graffiti in Tahrir and around the capital reads: “Tantawi is Mubarak.”
On Tuesday, Tantawi sought to respond to his critics. Looking uncomfortable in front of the camera, he said in a televised address that a presidential election would be held by July, much earlier than the previous schedule, which might not have seen a vote till late 2012 or early 2013.
He insisted the army did not want power and, in a surprise move, offered a referendum on army rule, saying the military would return to barracks immediately if the people wanted that.
It failed to win over protesters in Tahrir. “Leave, leave,” they chanted. “History is repeating itself. It looks like he plagiarized Mubarak’s speech,” said 24-year-old Sara Hussein.
Some saw the referendum offer as a ploy, betting on the millions of Egyptians who have not turned out in Tahrir or other cities to protest and who are tired of the political turmoil.
“The army knows that a popular referendum will bring it into power,” said military analyst Safwat Zayaat.
Tantawi spoke little in public 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. He was too close to the former president to be personally popular with protesters who led the uprising in Tahrir Square.
But a desire for change and respect for soldiers under his command trumped concerns many may have had when he took power.
“People expected that after the downfall of Mubarak that he might be changed and he might be serious about leading the country to change,” said Khalil al-Anani, an Egyptian analyst at Britain’s Durham University.
Instead, he said Egyptians found he had “the same mentality as Mubarak, who would like to keep things as it is”.
That view had been echoed, back in 2008, well before the “Arab Spring” in a leaked diplomatic cable by the U.S. ambassador to Cairo. Francis Ricciardone described Tantawi as “charming and courtly” but “aged and change-resistant”.
The U.S. envoy was in a good position to know, as the United States gives Egypt’s military $1.3 billion in aid each year.
“He and Mubarak are focussed 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, 76, is the same generation as 83-year-old Mubarak. Both are decorated veterans of the 1956 Suez crisis and the 1967 and 1973 wars against Israel. The army is admired for its role in conflicts portrayed as a struggle against colonialism.
But the field marshal is now leading a nation where the bulk of the population of 80 million is too young to have any recollection of the last war. Many youths’ memories are now being shaped by scenes of street battles with police.
“The problem is a gap between two generations: one thinking about a new Egypt and another that leans towards the continuation within the old regime,” said Nabil Abdel Fattah, an expert at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
“He 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 denied he has any presidential ambitions.
But a Western diplomat said he and the army wanted to manage their exit on their terms: ensuring commanders did not end up in court like Mubarak, shielding the army’s broad economic interests and guaranteeing the military’s privileges and status.
Tantawi has sought to give a more down-to-earth image. He was caught in video footage walking in a civilian suit near Tahrir 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 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.
Activists have also been infuriated by newspaper photos of Tantawi opening roads and other projects, images that bear a striking resemblance to events attended by Mubarak.
But what angered many Egyptians most was his testimony in the trial of Mubarak over the killing protesters early in the year. His remarks were given behind closed doors, but Tantawi later confirmed lawyers’ accounts, saying Mubarak did not order the army to open fire.
”The Egyptian public was certain that Mubarak had given orders to fire at protesters,“ Zayaat said. ”
For Tantawi to give a testimony that says the opposite ultimately shakes the people’s trust in him.”
Additional reporting by Marwa Awad, Dina Zayed and Tamim Elyan; Editing by Alastair Macdonald