With the sudden resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s powerful armed forces have assumed full—if temporary—control of the country. That makes Defense Minister Mohamed Tantawi, a little-known figure once privately derided as “Mubarak’s poodle,” the most powerful man in the new Egypt.
The jubilation in the streets of Cairo over Mubarak’s departure masks the full extent of the historic shift now underway in Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous nation. Late Thursday night, Mubarak tried to transfer authority to his hand-picked vice president, Omar Suleiman, but the announcement triggered widespread fury and seemed virtually certain to lead to violence. Instead, Egypt's Supreme Military Council stepped in on Friday to push out both Mubarak and Suleiman in what amounted to a bloodless—and immensely popular—military coup.
Suleiman gave a brief statement on Egyptian state-owned television announcing that Mubarak had formally stepped down and assigned the "higher council of the armed forces to run the affairs of the country." In a telling indicator of the new power hierarchy, the primary spokesman for Egypt's armed forces was standing directly behind Suleiman as the vice president announced the military council had supplanted him as the country's top authority.
“This gives us a bit more insight into what happened yesterday: there was some kind of power struggle going on, and Tantawi won,” said Joshua Stacher, an Egypt expert at Kent State University who lived in the country for nine years. “Omar Suleiman isn’t in control anymore. This is now a military government.”
The changes mean that Tantawi is the country’s day-to-day ruler, sitting at the helm of a provisional government made up almost entirely of senior Egyptian generals. There were unconfirmed reports that Tantawi planned to bring the head of Egypt’s supreme constitutional court into his ruling council, which is expected to fire the remainder of Mubarak’s cabinet and suspend both houses of Egypt’s parliament.
The military has moved quickly to reach out to the pro-democracy protesters who forced Mubarak’s departure, the first time an Egyptian leader left office without being killed or forcibly removed since the founding of the current republic in the early 1950s.
In a brief statement Friday afternoon, Lt. Gen. Sami Enan, Egypt’s top military officer, paid tribute to the hundreds of protesters who were killed during the weeks-long showdown with Mubarak and his loyalists. Enan said Egypt’s military “salutes the martyrs who have sacrificed their lives to protect the freedom of their country.”
Enan said the ruling military council would soon issue more detailed statements about its plans for the weeks ahead, a pivotal period for the country’s transition to a post-Mubarak future. The council will face a host of complicated policy decisions, from whether to allow the banned Muslim Brotherhood to take part in this fall’s presidential elections to what to do with the thousands of political dissidents who Mubarak imprisoned during his 30 years in power.
The key voice in many of those decisions will belong to Tantawi, who visited the protesters in Tahrir Square last week in what was seen at the time as one of the first cracks in the Mubarak regime’s power structure. Although little-known in the West, Tantawi spent decades in uniform, rising to the rank of field marshall, the highest position in the Egyptian military. A veteran of Egypt’s three wars with Israel, he has served as the country’s defense minister since 1991.
Tantawi had been so publicly and privately deferential to Mubarak over the years that a classified cable sent by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo in 2008—and recently made public by WikiLeaks—said that younger Egyptian officers referred to the defense minister as “Mubarak’s poodle.”
“Recently, academics and civilian analysts painted a portrait of an Egyptian military in intellectual and social decline, whose officers have largely fallen out of society's elite ranks,” U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey wrote in the cable. "They describe a disgruntled mid-level officer corps harshly critical of a defense minister they perceive as incompetent and valuing loyalty above skill in his subordinates.”
Still, Tantawi has shown a deft political touch over the years and is likely to emerge as a formidable figure both inside and outside of Egypt. In early 2008, for instance, violent riots broke out across Egypt because of widespread bread shortages. The military, which runs its own network of bakeries, stepped in and provided large quantities of bread to Egypt’s civilian population, further boosting its public standing. The classified cable noted that the military’s bread distribution demonstrated that it “sometimes can successfully step in where other government agencies fail.”