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Egypt's generals impose martial law
Retired military officers and analysts described Tantawi as pragmatic and conservative, with no visible political aspirations. They said he has the support of other senior commanders, including Lt. Gen. Sami Enan, the armed forces' chief of staff.
"Tantawi does not have ambitions to run for president. No one in the supreme council has that wish," said Hosam Sowilam, a retired major general and former military college classmate of Tantawi's. "We are military people. We don't want to indulge in any political matters. We want to only participate in defending our territory and preserving the independence and stability of the country."
Over the years, Tantawi has kept close ties with U.S. government and military officials. "He understands the importance of this relationship," said Mohamed Kadry Said, a former major general who is an analyst at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.
Tantawi is also seen as a reliable ally by Israel, which has feared greater instability with Mubarak's departure. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has affirmed that Egypt will honor its international treaty obligations, including its peace accord with Israel.
But some military analysts said that despite protestations to the contrary, Tantawi and other generals might find that they enjoy ruling Egypt without any checks on their authority.
"In a few months, after they realize how powerful they are and if they believe they can control the country and restore stability, I am not sure they won't fall in love with their huge influence," said Giora Eiland, a retired Israeli major general who is an analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. "Under certain circumstances, they can find excuses as to why an election cannot be held at the moment."
Some demonstrators said they would continue to occupy Tahrir Square until the generals acceded to other demands, including the release of thousands of political prisoners and the repeal of Egypt's state-of-emergency law, which Mubarak imposed almost 30 years ago as a tool to repress political opponents.
"How can there be freedom as long as the emergency law exists?" said Ram Ebead, 32, an unemployed chemist who has camped out in the plaza since protests erupted Jan. 25. "How can there be freedom without the release of political prisoners?"
Other organizers said they would leave Tahrir Square for now but would return every Friday to pressure the military to make good on its promises.
"The people will be frustrated if the military stays in power more than six months," said Essam el-Erian, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. Analysts said the group stands to benefit from snap elections because it is Egypt's best-organized political movement.
Erian urged the military to cancel the emergency law and to release the prisoners, many of them Brotherhood supporters. But he also praised the military for the measures it has taken.
"We're on the right road," Erian said. "Transitions from dictatorship to democracy are very difficult. It will take time."
Special correspondent Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.