Where Egypt military's loyalties lie remains unclear
Saturday, February 5, 2011; 12:00 AM
CAIRO - As they gathered in force for an 11th straight day, anti-government demonstrators spotted an unexpected face in their midst in Tahrir Square: Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the Egyptian defense minister.
"The army and the people are united!" crowds shouted hopefully after his presence was announced Friday afternoon on a loudspeaker. Tantawi mingled with some of his troops and chatted with protesters, telling them that they had made their point and urging them to go home. But his presence underscored the degree to which both President Hosni Mubarak and the people calling for his head are counting on the country's military leadership to secure Egypt's political future, even if neither is sure where its loyalties will end up.
The 470,000-strong Egyptian military is far more than just a defense-related institution; like the Chinese military, it controls a wide array of factories, hotels and businesses, and its generals constitute a stratum of Egypt's elite.
"Egyptian military officers are in the upper echelon of society," said one former U.S. general with extensive experience in the Middle East and Egypt who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve his relationships in the region. "The biggest question for the Egyptian military is whether or not there will be a whole-scale change in the Egyptian elite, because the senior military officers are so much a part of that elite. . . . They may be indifferent on whether Mubarak stays or leaves."
But current and former U.S. officials described the Egyptian General Staff as fairly unified in its support of Mubarak. "If you are a general in the Egyptian army, you are beholden to Mubarak. You were handpicked by Mubarak," said a former U.S. military official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he still consults with the Egyptian armed forces. "What you have is bureaucrats who were promoted because they were good managers and were loyal to Mubarak and Tantawi."
The 75-year-old Tantawi has long been derided by some Egyptian military officers as Mubarak's "poodle," and U.S. officials have expressed exasperation with Tantawi's firm resistance to change or reform of any sort.
In March 2008, a few days before Tantawi was scheduled to make a four-day visit to the United States, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo gave a blunt assessment of his abilities in a cable to the State Department.
"Washington interlocutors should be prepared to meet an aged and change-resistant Tantawi," read the cable, signed by then-Ambassador Francis J. Ricciardone and subsequently made public by the anti-secrecy Web site WikiLeaks. "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."
Last weekend, when Mubarak reshuffled his cabinet in a failed attempt to defuse the protests, he elevated his old ally to the rank of deputy prime minister.
Since then, Obama administration officials have assiduously urged Tantawi to avoid an army crackdown against the protesters. His counterpart at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, has called him four times, most recently on Friday.
At the same time, other U.S. officials have repeatedly delivered the same message to Lt. Gen. Sami Enan, Egypt's chief of the armed forces, in the hopes that the military can gently maintain a measure of stability amid attempts to usher Mubarak out of office. The United States provides Egypt with about $1.3 billion in military aid each year.
U.S. officials say they are reluctant to cut off military aid right now, as some analysts and lawmakers have suggested, because they think the Egyptian military has mostly acted well and remained neutral in the conflict.