The 75-year-old Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the Egyptian defense minister. 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.”
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.”