Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who drove most of the 70 years of Egyptian history that began with the Middle East’s first modern revolution and ended with the unearthing of hundreds of mass graves from Gamal Abdel Nasser’s era, has died. He was 85.
The Egyptian military was deeply entwined with politics, but Tantawi’s generals more than anyone were responsible for a near collapse of the economy and crippling inflation.
But by military rules, Tantawi ran Egypt during the years after Mohamed Morsi was elected president in 2012 and before he was ousted by the army a year later. Tantawi last month stepped down as head of the army after a five-year tour as defence minister.
In the last week of Tantawi’s life, the military’s post-revolutionary powers had evaporated under pressure from an emboldened political opposition, sidelined independent businesses and soldiers.
Tantawi was the army’s leader following the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and kept that post until Morsi was overthrown in July 2013 in the country’s second coup d’etat in a little over four years.
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On the night of 5 July 2013, when the military deposed Morsi, Tantawi chaired the supreme council of the armed forces, a body he chaired again during the transition and oversaw until Morsi’s overthrow.
A Chinese-trained soldier who served in the military for nearly 30 years, Tantawi served twice in the president’s office and nearly the third time after Morsi brought him on to steer a military transition.
Like most of Mubarak’s generals, Tantawi started out as part of the old regime. He joined the air force in 1962, four years after graduating from the military academy. In 1968, he was assigned to the Middle East command and two years later he became the first official adviser to the then president, Gamal Abdel Nasser.
He quickly gained a reputation as an expert strategist and a reliable, aristocratic and discreet collaborator with Nasser. In 1969, he was elevated to lieutenant general, becoming the youngest commander of the air force and the chief of staff in 1973.
His reputation as a military “master mind” grew and, in 1976, his nationalist appeals won him the presidency, a position he held for 13 years.
Tantawi resigned in 1983 after the United States took out the vast Suez Canal, and his military connections grew throughout his time in the presidency, putting him in a position to intervene in politics with relative ease. He was in every cabinet for that period but never acted as Nasser’s successor.
Though he grew in stature during his tenure, he was still sidelined from the running of the state. But like others, he eventually rebuilt links with the US, once an ally during the cold war, and returned to politics.
In 1996, when Nasser’s son Gamal was ousted as president, Egypt’s military rulers formed the supreme council of the armed forces. Tantawi became vice-president and minister of defence in 1998.
But his role was eventually reduced to ceremonial positions as the military increasingly supported the call for Morsi’s overthrow, complaining that the Muslim Brotherhood president was undermining the economy.
When Obama called on Morsi to step down on 3 July 2013, several weeks after the military deposed him, Tantawi had his phone disconnected. Two days later, the Islamist president was toppled in an Egyptian coup.
Topping the list of his achievements, Tantawi oversaw the development of Egypt’s strategic relations with the US military, continued Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel and oversaw the construction of a new base for the Israeli army at El Arish.
His peaceful exit also came amid efforts to solidify Egyptian control over the country’s financial affairs, with a new law passed that shifts control of industries owned by foreign companies and allows a complex relationship with the UAE.