tantawi - AP - September 21 2011
Egyptians hanging a banner supporting Tantawi in Cairo in July. Photo by AP
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When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Egypt last week, he may have been reminded of Turkey's recent past, when it was run by a series of generals whom he despised. But after Hosni Mubarak turned a cold shoulder to him, and the military council that succeeded the deposed president postponed his visit twice on the grounds that it was preoccupied with domestic affairs, Erdogan could not wait any longer for a civilian regime to be established in Egypt. So he sat across from a general (or to use his proper title, field marshal ): Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the head of state.

Tantawi never dreamed he would be his country's leader. But had if he had political ambitions, Mubarak always made sure to distance him from politics. In return, Tantawi received freedom to run the army and build up Egypt's military capabilities.

Tantawi, who is 76 and not in the best of health, has a long military career behind him. It began with the 1956 Sinai Campaign and continued through the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War (when he fought at the Chinese Farm ). In all those wars, he held combat positions. Inter alia, he has been commander of the presidential guard and head of the Egyptian Army's operations directorate.

He was appointed defense minister and chief of staff by Mubarak in 1991, and he served under Mubarak for the next 20 years. After Egypt's uprising began in January 2011, Mubarak appointed him deputy prime minister, and on February 11, Tantawi assumed the position of the country's "director general," which he will hold until presidential elections take place.

The amazing thing is that despite his long years of service to Mubarak and the fact that he was an inseparable part of the old regime, there have as yet been no demands to get rid of him or try him. The same is true of Omar Suleiman, another staunch veteran of Mubarak's regime. Popular demonstrations in April, as well as the most recent ones, did criticize Tantawi for being a military dictator, and for the slow pace at which the protest movement's demands are being met, but this does not overshadow his great accomplishment: placing the army on the people's side, against the president.

Conservative and cunning

Tantawi does not make speeches or give interviews. For that reason, he is sometimes referred to as "the mute field marshal."

One can learn about his worldview and positions from WikiLeaks cables, in which the U.S. ambassador to Cairo reported that Tantawi's colleagues described him as conservative, suspicious, cunning and resistant to change. But Washington didn't need its ambassador's cables to know what Tantawi's positions were. Every time the Americans tried to persuade him to reorganize the military along the lines of the U.S. Army, he rejected the proposals with characteristic politeness, humor and determination.

Some of the cables say he vehemently opposed Mubarak's plan to name his son Gamal as his successor, so much so that Gamal's circle viewed him as an opponent who had be defeated. Tantawi objected not only to the succession plans, but also to the ambitious economic plans of Gamal's circle, which saw privatization as a supreme good.

Tantawi's opposition to privatization also had a practical reason: He did not spend the huge budget at his disposal (estimates range from $5 billion to $20 billion ) only on arms and equipment.

State lands that once housed military bases were turned into developments where the army built resorts and residential housing. In the 1980s, the army received a permit and land to build 13 "military cities" around Cairo, each housing some 250,000 residents as well as hospitals, schools, mosques and other public buildings. Later, another 10 cities were added. Soldiers worked in these cities during the latter part of their service, and in this way, the army integrated its people into the labor market without difficulty.

The army also developed an independent manufacturing base that included sewing factories, bakeries, vehicle assembly plants, dairies and food manufacturers. Soldiers worked in these factories and earned more than the average Egyptian wage. In this way, the army contributed to the creation of an elite middle class whose privileges included clubs, discount vouchers, preference in school admissions and study trips abroad for mid-level and senior officers.

Finally, the army pays no taxes, while parliamentary supervision of its operations hardly exists, because the parliamentary committee responsible for supervising the army is full of former army and police officers who are close to the top brass. Thus Tantawi feared that any change Gamal had planned would damage the army's economic position and that of the people serving in it.

But Tantawi's conservatism also has a positive side: He adheres to the paradigm that views the Camp David Accords as Egypt's most important guarantee of maintaining strong ties with the United States and preventing another war with Israel.

Tantawi still has not testified at Mubarak's trial; Erdogan's visit delayed his testimony. Even when he does testify, it will be behind closed doors, after which Mubarak's supporters and opponents will both be able to spread rumors about what he said. But there is no doubt that this taciturn army man is the one who will decide Mubarak's fate - whether Mubarak is found guilty of killing protesters and committing crimes against "the Egyptian people," or deemed an honest president whose term simply lasted a little longer than it should have.

But beyond the question of Mubarak's fate, Tantawi and the army he oversees will continue, thanks to the tremendous political capital they accumulated during the protests, to be the "guardians of the revolution" even after a civilian government is formed. Anyone seeking a replica of the Turkish model - not the current one, in which Erdogan has managed to push the army out of politics, but the former one - will be able to find it in Egypt as time goes by.