World·In Depth

Egypt's military flexes its muscle

An army field marshal whom a U.S. diplomat once described as "Mubarak's poodle" is now Egypt's new leader, and he heads a powerful and popular military.

Top officer Tantawi 'Mubarak's poodle'

Egyptians celebrate President Hosni Mubarak's resignation near army tanks in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Feb. 11. More than two weeks of protests finally swept Mubarak from power Friday after 30 years of autocratic rule. A military council, headed by Defence Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, now rules Egypt. ((Asmaa Waguih/Reuters))

On Feb. 11, Egyptian vice-president Omar Suleiman announced on state television that Hosni Mubarak "has decided to leave the position of the presidency."

The news was met with deafening jubilation by the Egyptian protesters who had spent the last 18 days agitating for his departure. But the key part of Suleiman's address was what followed that initial statement: "[Mubarak] has commissioned the armed forces council to direct the issues of the state."

Hosni Mubarak, left, speaks with Vice-President Omar Suleiman in Cairo in this video frame taken Feb. 10. Later that day, Mubarak went on TV to say he would not resign. The next day, Suleiman announced Mubarak had finally stepped down. ((Egyptian State TV/Reuters) )

At the head of that council, known as the higher military council, is 75-year-old Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, a close friend of Mubarak's. Tantawi has been Egypt's minister of defence since 1991 and in January, Mubarak also named him deputy prime minister after he sacked his cabinet in a failed bid to quell the protests that eventually brought him down.

Tantawi and Suleiman, who Mubarak only recently named as his vice-president, were for years the only active-duty military officers in Mubarak's cabinet. Suleiman was a minister without portfolio and also headed Egypt's intelligence agency. Both were believed to wield significant influence in the cabinet.

Tantawi now de facto leader

Tantawi appears to be the man in charge for the moment. He is well known to the U.S. government and has made many visits to the U.S. Ahead of a 2008 visit, Francis Ricciardone, then the U.S. ambassador to Egypt, sent a cable to Washington that described Tantawi as both "charming and courtly" and "aged and change-resistant."

Defence Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi visits troops within the opposition stronghold in Tahrir Square in Cairo Feb. 4. Tantawi now heads the military council that took control of Egypt after Mubarak resigned. ((Goran Tomasevic/Reuters))

He described Tantawi and Mubarak as "focused on regime stability and maintaining the status quo through the end of their time."

Ricciardone added an observation that tellingly foreshadows recent developments. Both men "simply do not have the energy, inclination or world view to do anything differently."

The cable was among the hundreds of U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in November 2010.

Also in that release was another cable sent by current Ambassador Margaret Scobey six months later that was even more damning of Tantawi.

In Cairo mid-level Egyptian officers can be heard "openly expressing disdain for Tantawi" and referring to him as "Mubarak's poodle," she wrote. The officers complain that as defence minister, Tantawi is incompetent and "reached his position only because of unwavering loyalty to Mubarak," Scobey's cable said.

The defence ministry reportedly fires "officers it perceives as being 'too competent'," because they may pose a threat to the regime, the cable explains. It was a similar situation in the military itself. For years, "the regime has not allowed any charismatic figures to reach the senior ranks."

Suleiman expected to fade from view

As for Suleiman, U.S. officials told NBC News that they expect him to now fade from view. According to NBC, the officials said that by asking Egyptians to halt their protests in his first speech following Mubarak's Feb. 10 address in which he was still refusing to resign, Suleiman "cast his fate with Mubarak and that hurt him with his military colleagues."

The Egyptian constitution stipulates that when a president resigns, it is the speaker of parliament (Ahmad Fathi Sorour, a Mubarak acolyte) who takes over, but what has happened in this case is essentially a military coup — although a popular one. 

The constitution also requires that elections be held within 60 days, but it seems likely that the military won't respect that clause either.

Armed forces a powerful and popular institution in Egypt

The armed forces enjoy an unusual measure of prestige in Egypt. Part of it is attributable to their sheer number: with close to 500,000 troops, they are the biggest military in Africa and the 10th-largest in the world.

Mubarak and Tantawi at the funeral procession of Mohamed Abd al-Halim Abu Ghazala in Cairo on Sept. 7, 2008. Ghazala was Egypt's defence minister until he was dismissed in 1989 because of his growing political popularity. ((Nasser Nuri/Reuters))

It is the police, not the military, who are viewed as an instrument of government oppression.

The military is also a big and influential player in the economy.

When the Scobey cable from the Cairo embassy was written in 2008, the Egyptian government had embarked on a privatization campaign as part of a package of economic reforms. The military resisted the reforms because it saw them, in the ambassador's view, "as a threat to its economic position."

The U.S. embassy viewed "the military's role in the economy as a force that generally stifles free market reform by increasing direct government involvement in the markets."

U.S. saw military as in decline

The military has also increased its influence through retired officers taking top jobs in the bureaucracy and other areas of Egyptian life, the cable noted.

Nevertheless, in 2008, the U.S. embassy perceived the Egyptian military as on "in intellectual and social decline, whose officers have largely fallen out of society's elite ranks."

Tantawi and U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates inspect an honour guard at the Ministry of Defence in Cairo, May 5, 2009. A 2008 cable from the U.S. embassy said Tantawi was 'aged and change-resistant.' ((Jason Reed/Reuters))

But Robert Springborg, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., sees the military as still the biggest actor in Egyptian political life and expects that won't change under a new regime. 

Egyptians have long been taught that military and national interests are synonymous, and the military has long disguised it own role in political and civil affairs behind a "veil of civilian governance," Springborg told CBC Radio's Dispatches.

"[Egyptians] know what the military allows them to know and how it presents itself, but they do not know the reality," Springborg said.

Chances are, the military will seek to maintain this facade when shaping Egypt's next government in order to preserve its influence and privileges in the new ruling order.