Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantaoui, Minister of Defense for 20 years of Hosni Mubarak, whom he replaced in 2011 when a popular revolt overthrew him, died on Tuesday.
The marshal, who died at the age of 85, took the reins of Egypt in February 2011 at the head of a military council which had pledged to organize elections, in a country where the army has long had the upper hand on business.
Under Tantaoui, who ruled the country for nearly 18 months, Egypt has seen numerous protests against the military. Elected in June 2012, Islamist President Mohamed Morsi had dismissed him, replacing him in Defense with the current President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, then also one of the most important figures in the army.
The latter said Tuesday to have “lost a father, a master, a jealously patriotic man” and decreed a national mourning, while Cairo hosted a military funeral with great pomp in the presence of the highest leaders of the state.
Among the rare Western reactions, the American and European embassies offered their condolences.
“No blood on the hands”
Hero of several wars of the 20th century, in 2011 and 2012, Marshal Tantaoui, who became the face of the new transitional regime, had crystallized popular ire in particular after violence in Mohamed Mahmoud Street in Cairo in November 2011, during which dozens of demonstrators had been killed, and death in a Port Said stadium of more than 70 supporters in February 2012.
“He has no one’s blood on his hands: Mohamed Mahmoud or the Port Said stadium, it was all a plot,” Sissi commented on Tuesday.
After 18 days of a popular revolt, Mubarak, at the head of Egypt for 30 years, resigned on February 11, 2011 and handed over his powers to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), led by Tantaoui, his minister of Defense since 1991.
During this period, Tantaoui was often seen as a potential presidential candidate, but his advanced age and health problems had worked against him.
In July 2013, Mr. Sissi, who became the strong man of Egypt, had in turn dismissed Mohamed Morsi following monster demonstrations demanding the departure of the president, being elected a year later as head of the country.
Close to Mubarak
Born in 1935 and of Nubian origin, Tantaoui began his career in the infantry in 1956, participating in particular in the Suez crisis at the time of the tripartite expedition orchestrated by France and Great Britain, as well as in the wars. Israeli-Arabs from 1967 and 1973.
During the Gulf War of 1991, he had participated in the coalition led by the United States, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait by Iraq.
A 2008 US diplomatic cable revealed by Wikileaks described Mubarak and Tantaoui as leaders “focused on regime stability and maintaining the status quo.”
“They just don’t have the energy, inclination or worldview to do things differently,” the cable noted, calling the marshal “old and opposed to change.”
After the uprising of 2011, the army was first praised for its support for the anti-Mubarak demonstrators and the junta led by Tantaoui had promised them “an elected civilian power to build a free democratic state”.
The protesters also saw the military institution as a unifying force, less corrupt and less brutal than the Interior Ministry police.
During this period, Tantaoui was notably forced, under the pressure of demonstrations, to put Mubarak on trial, for complicity in the murder of hundreds of demonstrators during the revolt.
But quickly, the young pro-democracy activists, spearheads of the revolt, had accused the junta of dragging its feet to launch democratic reforms. Tantaoui has never been tried.
After his eviction, he had kept quiet. However, he had attended the inauguration ceremony of a second track of the Suez Canal in 2015.