A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Field Marshal in a Suit: An Omen?

Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein Tantawi, Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Minister of Defense, Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces and Egypt's de facto head of state since February 11, has been a bit of a mystery, sphinx-like if you will. He made one public speech (the Police Academy graduation), has given a few rare press interviews, and while often shown on television, doesn't say much there. He is by far the most powerful figure in the country, but little known to most Egyptians and foreign observers.

Yesterday he had a high profile day. He testified in the Mubarak trial, though the testimony was closed (though there's a leaked version of its supposed text out there, which has no big surprises). And he was photographed walking through downtown Cairo, without guards visible, in a civilian suit. (Photo above from  The Daily News Egypt site.) UPDATES with video below.

Uh-oh.  It's already looking like a new President may not be elected till late next year at the earliest, and (a post is coming on this when I finish working on it), this past weekend's changes in the electoral law are seen by some as guaranteeing a weak parliament, perhaps giving the SCAF more responsibility. Suspicion that the SCAF is starting to get used to power and may not be in as great a hurry as it once claimed to be to hand over the reins to an elected President has been growing. And now, the head of SCAF seems to be doing the man-of-the-people thing, just another ibn al-balad (or at least Misri Effendi) strolling through the streets of the capital in mufti with no (visible) entourage. Right. I'm sure he does that every day. I did have a Major General drive me around once, but Major Generals are a dime a dozen in Egypt, and I've never run into a Field Marshal out for a stroll.

Now, one of the reasons Mubarak liked Tantawi (as opposed to the Field Marshal he inherited from Sadat, Muhammad ‘Abd al-Halim Abu Ghazala, who eventually was pushed out), was that Tantawi never had any detectable ambition beyond being the Field Marshal, and absolutely not a trace of detectable charisma that could win him popularity. His refusal to make himself a public figure despite being in the top office suggests he still has little of the latter, but is he developing ambition?

Next year, which will be the 50th anniversary of the 1952 Revolution and the first anniversary of this year's, now seems like the earliest we can expect a Presidential election. Many have hoped that for the first time in a half century, the new man (don't expect a woman, not yet or soon) would be a man without military experience or simply one who'd done his regular national service, not a former career officer. Already one declared candidate (Magdi Hatata) is a former senior general, as is probable candidate former Air Force Chief Ahmad Shafiq. (Some still think ex-intel chief and Vice President ‘Omar Suleiman might run as well.) And now Tantawi is starting to look like a man of the people.

Right now I don't find that reassuring, though I know there are some who do. In Egypt, and here in Washington.  My own attitude is pretty much Back to the Barracks, or Back to Tahrir.  But I know there are those who think it's a choice between the uniforms or the Muslim Brothers. I think we should at least let there be an election first.

UPDATES: Comments from Zeinobia, and the video from TV:

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