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Egyptian defense chief unknown in West, derided at home

By the CNN Wires Staff
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Not much is known about Mohammed Hussein Tantawi in the West
  • U.S. Embassy cables released by WikiLeaks contain references to Tantawi
  • Cables: Tantawi is "intolerant" of reform and is mocked openly by midlevel officers
  • One cable says he has become "increasingly intolerant of intellectual freedom"

(CNN) -- Mohammed Hussein Tantawi is Egypt's deputy prime minister, defense minister and commander-in-chief of the country's armed forces. In the West, little is known about him, or how he intends to lead the Egyptian military, now that it's in charge of the government.

Former U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen knows Tantawi and worked with him at the Pentagon. He told CNN's Wolf Blitzer that "the question is whether he will continue to be the head of the military, as such, or whether that will pass on to a younger generation."

Tantawi, who holds the title "field marshal," received his first military commission in 1956, He was born on October 31, 1935, and fought in Egypt's 1956 war against Britain, France and Israel. He also served during Egypt's conflicts with Israel in 1967 and 1973.

Tantawi was only recently made deputy prime minister. Former President Hosni Mubarak appointed him to the position during the early days of the protest movement that eventually forced Mubarak from power.

Since 1991, Tantawi has held the position of defense minister, wielding near-exclusive decision-making power within the ministry. However, during that time, "the tactical and operational readiness of the Egyptian Armed Forces has degraded," according to globalsecurity.org, a military analysis group.

Protester 'not that worried' about army

U.S. Embassy cables released by WikiLeaks contain multiple references to Tantawi, his relationship with Mubarak and they way he is viewed by other Egyptian military officials.

One cable described him as "frozen in the Camp David paradigm and uncomfortable with our shift to the post-9/11 global war on terror." Another quoted an unnamed Egyptian officer, who joked that Tantawi "looks like a bureaucrat."

That cable went on to say he is openly mocked at clubs in Cairo where midlevel officers gather. The cable claimed these officers mock him openly as "incompetent" and as "Mubarak's poodle." The officers also say that Tantawi's unwavering loyalty to Mubarak is "running the military into the ground," according to the cable.

Most significant for the hopes of democratic-reform advocates in Egypt, the cables say that Tantawi has always supported the centralization of power in Egypt.

One cable says he has become "increasingly intolerant of intellectual freedom." Another goes into greater detail on his position.

"Tantawi has opposed both economic and political reforms that he perceives as eroding central government power," according to the cable. "He is supremely concerned with national unity, and has opposed policy initiatives he views as encouraging political or religious cleavages with Egyptian society."

He has revealed a willingness to use the military to control political groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, the cables say, and opposes economic reform because it reduces the Egyptian government's control over prices and production.

That cable's final assessment of Tantawi warned diplomats to "be prepared to meet an aged and change-resistant Tantawi. ... 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."

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