In Egypt, the 1973 Arab–Israeli War is a timeless event. But nearly fifty years later, the generation that fought on the banks of the Suez Canal and in the Sinai Peninsula is dying. The conflict will soon be resigned to historical memory, its battles memorialized in the media and official proclamations, but nowhere else. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who was a teenager in the early 1970s, appeared to acknowledge as much during an educational symposium this week on the anniversary of the war, which came just after the death of one of its most famous veterans, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.
Tantawi, who was eighty-five years old, fought in both the Six-Day War in 1967 and the War of Attrition in 1967–70, but he distinguished himself as commander of the sixteenth infantry battalion in 1973. Among the first Egyptian detachments to cross the canal into the Sinai, the battalion is perhaps best known for its role in the Battle of the Chinese Farm, a brutal two-day confrontation with the Israeli military on the western edge of the Sinai. The Egyptians retreated from this fortification on 17 October, but not without inflicting significant damage on the enemy. Tantawi was awarded a medal for his courage.
Born in the Cairo neighborhood of ‘Abdeen in 1935, Tantawi graduated from the city’s Military Academy in April 1956, on the eve of the Suez Crisis, and fought alongside Palestinian forces in the Gaza Strip soon after. He returned to the Military Academy to teach tactics and in the 1960s travelled to post-independence Algeria, where he established a similar institution. After the 1973 war, he rose through the ranks of the motorized infantry, eventually becoming commander of a division. Tantawi led the Second Field Army, the Republican Guard and finally the Operations Authority. From the mid- to late-70s, his role as Egypt’s military attaché in Pakistan and Afghanistan shielded him from civil-military tensions at home – as President Anwar Sadat repositioned Egypt geopolitically with the signing of the Camp David accords and fought to suppress the country’s opposition.
From top to bottom, the ranks of the military were displeased with Sadat’s unilateral realignment with the United States and rapprochement with Israel. So when a uniformed officer, Khaled Islambouli, opened fire on Sadat during a military parade, it was far from unexpected. A couple weeks earlier, the security forces had reportedly rounded up twenty people – some of them military officers – on suspicion of planning an attack. Aside from exposing the inability of the military to control its personnel, the assassination of Sadat precipitated intense internal surveillance and scrutiny. As Hosni Mubarak’s regime emerged in its wake, so too did a new order in the army, beginning, as it often does, with purges. Those who remained in uniform were sent a stark message: stay in line, and don’t fly too close to the sun. Mubarak found at least one senior-level officer who seemed willing to follow these injunctions: Hussein Tantawi.
During the US-led operation in Kuwait, Tantawi coordinated the deployment of Egyptian forces to the Gulf. He also became the primary liaison between the commander of the Arab forces, Saudi prince Khalid bin Sultan, and the Egyptian leadership. Tantawi was appointed defence minister shortly after the war in May 1991. After moving into the official residence off Ibn al-Hakam Square, his main priority was to oversee the transformation – or ‘modernization’, as the US government called it – of the military from Soviet to Western hardware, training and doctrine. Though Tantawi was receptive to Washington’s reforms, he was constrained early on by other senior officers who remained committed to the Soviet model. Whereas Tantawi had never attended a foreign military academy, his immediate predecessors all received training in the Soviet Union, while two of his successors spent time in the United States. His tenure, much like his background, represented an about-face for the military – and for Egypt more broadly.
When the military rules, soldiers are not just soldiers. Bureaucratic organization in an authoritarian state is often conflictual, so while war may have been the army’s vocation, politics became its specialty. They were forced to balance the competing priorities of loyalty and professionalism, reacting to the whims of the ruler (and sometimes the people). Of the twenty Egyptian defence ministers since the 1952 coup, Tantawi held the position the longest, weathering successive rounds of political violence, popular mobilization and economic liberalization. This was frequently interpreted by Egypt commentators as evidence of his complacency, lack of ambition and deference to Mubarak. Yet such characterizations overlooked an important fact: Tantawi beat the odds. In a country where top military officials are often jailed, exiled, muzzled, cashiered early – and have occasionally died in unusual circumstances – Tantawi’s longevity may have also been a sign of his political acuity.
Tantawi was, in fact, willing to push back against Mubarak at critical moments in his presidency, including the Egyptian revolution of 2011. From the first days of the protests Tantawi made his position clear: that the military would neither mount a coup d’état nor prop up the ailing regime. He believed that Mubarak had not grasped the severity of events on the ground, and doubted that he would cede control of the government even after he had agreed to a formal transfer of power. On 10 February Tantawi called a meeting of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces without its formal chairman, the president. The next day, Mubarak resigned and Tantawi took power. He oversaw a referendum on changes to the constitution – presidential term limits, a vice presidency, electoral reforms – and presided over the indictments of senior figures from the outgoing regime. Yet, as protesters continued to flood the streets calling for presidential elections to be brought forward, Tantawi’s forces killed dozens and arrested hundreds – at one point sending armoured vehicles to run over demonstrators staging a sit-in at the state television headquarters. Tantawi became a symbol of the ongoing state violence. His removal, or execution, was demanded by the crowds in Tahrir Square.
Two months after the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi came to power, Tantawi was asked to step down from both his military and political positions. He remained an adviser to Morsi and received an honorary Order of the Nile, but otherwise retreated from public life. In his place, the ambitious and adroit Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ascended to the role of defence minister. Morsi had invited the coup-maker in – and before long the unstable civilian government had been toppled by a revitalized military high command.
Prior to the Arab Spring, Tantawi regularly stated that the military would not tolerate succession: a rebuke to Mubarak, who planned for his son Gamal to take the helm. Yet in Egypt, positions of power are often passed from important men to their understudies. One retired Egyptian general described to me the Sisi–Tantawi relationship as that of a mentor and protégé. Another speculated that Tantawi had marked Sisi out to become defence minister ever since he was a young major. While consolidating his iron-grip on the country, Sisi has canonized Tantawi, lauding his heroism and self-sacrifice, and frequently drafting him in for ceremonial duties. Sisi ordered a colossal mosque to be built in his honour, and the military produced a eulogizing film titled ‘A Tribute to Loyalty’. In it, we are presented with a striking succession of Egyptian leaders: Nasser, Sadat, Tantawi, Sisi.
Read on: Hazem Kandil, ‘Sisi’s Egypt’, NLR 102.