Updated at 12:20 p.m. on February 15.
After Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak infuriated street protesters and surprised the Obama administration by refusing to step down in a defiant televised speech to the nation on Thursday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates called his Egyptian counterpart.
Pentagon officials would not characterize his comments to Defense Minister Mohamed Tantawi, but the administration was clearly displeased with Mubarak's speech and alarmed over its potential to provoke further unrest and violence.
Whether it was friendly advice or the infuriated reaction of hundreds of thousands of protesters, something important happened in the wake of Mubarak’s speech. In less than 24 hours, Tantawi and the rest of Egypt’s Supreme Military Council took a step they had steadfastly resisted during nearly three weeks of fence-sitting: the Egyptian military picked a side.
In pushing aside Mubarak and his handpicked vice president (Omar Suleiman), and assuming control of the government, the Supreme Military Council has put the Egyptian military squarely at the center of the nation’s politics. That is unfamiliar territory for an organization that has long preferred to operate in the background while the dictator and his bureaucracy handled the nitty gritty of governing. The key question now is whether the generals will have the deft political touch and credibility required to steer Egypt through a tumultuous transition to democracy.
“I’m willing to take at face value the statements of Tantawi and the Supreme Council that they are patriots concerned first with the welfare of their country,” said Steven Cook, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. But the Egyptian military leaders are not democrats, he notes, and they were loyal to a fault in sticking so long with Mubarak. “And now they are running Egypt after not being involved in its day-to-day governance or politics for more than three decades,” he said. When the generals start the unfamiliar business of trying to build a consensus for democratic reform among Egypt’s disparate opposition groups and stakeholders, he said, “I would suggest that it’s going to messy and really difficult.”
Given that Egypt is the second-largest recipient of U.S. military aid behind Israel, it’s striking just how little is known about the inner workings of the Egyptian military’s high command. Tantawi was reportedly promoted after being in charge of the security detail for Mubarak and his family, and he is the kind of nonthreatening loyalist that makes dictators comfortable. According to a classified State Department cable made public by WikiLeaks, younger Egyptian officers even nicknamed Tantawi “Mubarak’s poodle.”
However, the personal relationships and internal dynamic between Tantawi and the other generals who now run Egypt remain largely opaque to outsiders. “I’ve often said that there are two black holes in terms of our understanding of the Middle East,” said Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “One is the factionalism within Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, and the other is the inner workings of the Egyptian military. It’s pretty clear that we don’t understand how decisions are ultimately made among their military leaders, and that’s pretty scary.”
Graeme Bannerman of the Middle East Institute tells the story of sitting in the lobby of a Washington hotel with a major general who commanded the Egyptian Presidential Guard, and who would soon become the chief of staff of the Egyptian armed forces. When two Egyptian ambassadors passed by, Bannerman had to introduce the general to his country’s own ambassadors. They had never met him, or heard his name.
“The good news is that Egyptian military leaders listen to their U.S. counterparts because they have a friendly relationship, but they are nationalists and won’t be pushed by us into doing something they think goes against their national interests,” Bannerman told National Journal. “In the end, I think their concern for their country will outweigh their personal ambition, which is why I don’t worry that the Egyptian military leaders will try and hang on to power. Nor do I think they will fire on their people. But the situation remains very volatile, and we don’t know yet if the generals will be able to steer the country peacefully to democratic reforms and free elections.”
Correction: An earlier version of this report misspelled Bannerman's first name. It is Graeme Bannerman.