Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Egypt’s former military ruler who tried to keep order after the 2011 revolution but struggled to rein in chaos, died Sunday, a military source said. He was 85.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party put out a statement Sunday calling Tantawi a “traitor” who “betrayed the revolution” and “turned Egypt backward.”
The deputy military chief under Hosni Mubarak and head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces during his 18-year rule, Tantawi faced grave challenges to his authority amid the largest and most violent protests the country had seen in decades. But he remained loyal to his country’s military and feared that allowing the protests to be met with force could have triggered more such protests and led to a large-scale return of foreign arms to militants in the Sinai Peninsula.
Instead, he instructed the Egyptian military to maintain order and stepped up its cooperation with the police and intelligence services, however reluctantly. He did not quite match the fiery rhetoric of his predecessor, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who led the country through street protests in 2011 and who had touted himself as a “pillar of stability.” But his reputation was seen at least as much as any revolution — and any transition — as the landmark toppling of Mubarak in January 2011.
“The departure of Tantawi as military commander was viewed in Egypt as a victory for the youth,” wrote Nadia Abu El-Hussein, Egypt correspondent for the Financial Times, referring to the anti-Mubarak movement that was led by a group called the April 6 Youth Movement. “He was seen as a gutter politician, very calculating and more or less opportunistic in his dealings. He never was seen as a person who would place national security first.”
Tantawi was also known for his close relationship with the Islamist militants, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, and for his fearlessness with Islam, walking down Cairo’s streets with the movement’s movement leader, Mohammed Badie, in a show of loyalty and friendship during their time in power. The Brotherhood was harshly excluded from the constitution-writing process in 2012.
“Tantawi hated these people,” wrote Samir al-Fakher, a columnist at the al-Ahram daily newspaper. “As soon as they were in power, the Brotherhood turned against him. They told him, ‘You are not the leader we thought you were, not the man we appointed for the military council,’ and claimed that Tantawi had destroyed Egypt’s history. Under this assumption, they started up their protests. Tantawi was already weakened by the protests as demonstrations have no effect on the Egyptian military, and the statements the Muslim Brotherhood and their allies made proved to him this.
“Tantawi was ill, but he still chose to ignore it,” Fakher wrote. “He took the name of the Army and the people, believing it was for this that he had been selected. But, to make matters worse, then he was convinced by the Brotherhood, and it was he who started giving them salary allowances to be used to finance their activities.”
By the time former military chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi became the de facto president upon taking power following Mubarak’s ouster, Tantawi was a lame duck. He stepped down, leaving the military largely intact, to allow Sisi to assume the presidency.
“Tantawi is loved by some, hated by others, disliked by all,” wrote literary critic Hosham Ahmed in the Egypt Independent. “No one knew what he was thinking, and he gave no sound explanation as to why he lost his post. But if we look carefully, we will see that he was not sincere. We can see that he lied to everyone, like a bald, crooked liar. Some will say that he was honest, he just told lies.”
Tantawi was uncharacteristically restrained when announcing Sisi’s ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in 2013, which led to the summer’s mass protests against the former general. More than 600 people died in the streets, and Morsi himself was deposed and jailed. Morsi was later sentenced to death after his conviction on numerous charges, but the verdict has been widely seen as politically motivated.
“Hussein Tantawi has no dignity,” wrote Faiza Abu el-Naga, a prominent sociologist and feminist activist, in her blog. “He neither tried to justify his behavior nor show regret for causing the loss of lives in the anti-Morsi protests, but he did give a grand reason for his actions as to why this military coup could be justifiable, to avert the dark prospects that Morsi represented for Egypt, and