February 11, 2011
Egypt’s Military Leaders Face Power Sharing Test
By THOM SHANKER and ERIC SCHMITT
WASHINGTON — The two military officers who have risen to power in Egypt are members of the very elite that benefited from the reign of President Hosni Mubarak. Now the question being raised here and in Cairo is whether they can figure out a way to share power with a restive population that for decades has had none.
Both are members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has rarely met but will run the country at least until elections are held later in the year. Each gained credibility with protesters during the turmoil of the past three weeks by venturing out into the streets and mingling with the crowds, sending strong signals that they would not stand behind the president or order soldiers to fire on the demonstrators.
Despite this nod to populism, American military officers who know them say that neither officer is fiercely pro-democracy; in fact one of them, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, is seen as a strident opponent of political change. Both are likely to have calculated that protecting the military’s status and credibility was more important than standing behind an increasingly isolated and weakened president.
Field Marshal Tantawi, 75, the Egyptian defense minister, has the higher profile of the two officers, a member of the ruling clique for decades and widely known to American officials.
Although he has been derided on the street, and in classified diplomatic cables, as a “poodle” to Mr. Mubarak, Field Marshal Tantawi is portrayed by some senior American officers who know him personally as a shrewd operator who played a significant role in the relatively nonviolent ouster of his patron.
These officers say Field Marshal Tantawi is likely to be the most powerful military figure during the transition, because he is canny, knows the system and is more experienced.
By contrast, the second officer, Lt. Gen. Sami Hafez Enan, chief of staff of the armed forces, is a bit of a cipher to American officials, who say he has never sought to project a separate identity from the army he leads.
He is younger than the defense minister, and thus would most likely be promoted to the more senior ministry position if the military can calmly guide the nation toward democracy.
Americans who have worked with General Enan describe him as bright and innovative.
The army’s role in Egyptian society says much about the general who leads it. General Enan commands a conscription army — drawn by law from all sectors of Egyptian society and therefore tightly knitted with the populace. Every adult male is required to serve.
American officials said General Enan had made it clear to them in several telephone calls to Washington that his troops would not fire on the protesters, even as the military sought to protect the institutions of government.
Classified diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks illuminate the symbiotic relationship between top Egyptian commanders and their American counterparts, especially their mutual concern about regional threats.
General Enan comes across as particularly worried about Iranian power in the Middle East.
According to one cable, General Enan in April 2009 “stressed the importance of resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict in order to deter Iranian interference in the region.” Three months later, Gen. David H. Petraeus, then the commander of the United States Central Command, told General Enan that Egypt’s success in constraining Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group, had blunted Iran’s influence.
That same trove of cables offers a critical assessment of Field Marshal Tantawi. In the view of American diplomats and senior military officers, he was seen as a Mubarak confidant who had consistently resisted not only changes to the Egyptian military’s mission, but also social reforms in the country.
A classified cable prepared before a visit to Egypt in December 2008 by General Petraeus said the United States had pressed Egypt’s military to expand its mission to counter emerging threats like piracy, border security and terrorism.
“Egypt’s aging leadership, however, has resisted our efforts and remains satisfied with continuing to do what they have done for years: train for force-on-force warfare with a premium on ground forces and armor,” the cable said, adding that Field Marshal Tantawi, in particular, “has been the chief impediment to transforming the military’s mission to meet emerging security threats.”
A September 2008 cable cited a political analyst at a research center run by the Egyptian government as saying that Field Marshal Tantawi had made clear the Defense Ministry “will not tolerate independent thought within its own ranks.”
A March 2008 cable also characterized Field Marshal Tantawi as resistant to the kind of social changes that were among the top priorities of the hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who have been protesting for three weeks. “In the cabinet, where he still wields significant influence,” it said, “Tantawi has opposed both economic and political reforms that he perceives as eroding central government power.”
The cable concluded: “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.”
American experts on the Egyptian military shared the cables’ assessments.
“Tantawi has a reputation for basically being Mubarak’s shadow,” said Anthony H. Cordesman, an expert on the Egyptian military at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “He’s loyal without making waves or shaking structures.”
Mr. Cordesman said that General Enan “has a reputation for being more progressive and has a better understanding of the outside world. But neither of these people have ever governed anything.”
Mark Mazzetti contributed reporting.