Recently released U.S. embassy cables paint a portrait of an Egyptian military led by a sycophantic defense minster with little interest in economic or political reform. In recent weeks, that official, Mohamed Tantawi, has been on the phone regularly with U.S. military officials, who view the Egyptian army as a crucial conduit for change and continued stability.
One cable describes mid-level army officers as “disgruntled” and particularly critical of Egyptian Defense Minister Mohamed Tantawi, whom they saw as too subservient to Mubarak’s regime (The New York Times has a piece citing parts of the cables, but doesn’t link to them. We found the full cables on the Guardian’s site.):
These officers refer to Tantawi as "Mubarak's poodle," he said, and complain that "this incompetent Defense Minister" who reached his position only because of unwavering loyalty to Mubarak is "running the military into the ground." He opined that a culture of blind obedience pervades the MOD where the sole criteria for promotion is loyalty, and that the MOD leadership does not hesitate to fire officers it perceives as being "too competent" and who therefore potentially pose a threat to the regime.
Another cable, this one from 2008, describes Tantawi as opposed to “economic and political reforms that he perceives as eroding central government power.” (The Egyptian military, as NPR reports, has for years enjoyed an expansive role in the country’s economy, and military officers have reaped substantial profits from manufacturing, construction and other businesses.)
“He and Mubarak are focused on regime stability and maintaining the status quo through the end of their time,” the cable noted. “They simply do not have the energy, inclination or world view to do anything differently.”
The Egyptian military—the recipient of most U.S. aid to Egypt—has played a puzzling and evolving role during the two weeks of pro-democracy protests. Early on, it announced it would not use force against protesters. Days later, it called for an end to the protests.
When that call went unheeded, the army allowed a sudden surge of armed Mubarak supporters to attack protesters with little to no intervention. Protesters begging for help were told by some soldiers that they had not been given orders to protect them, reported NPR.
On Sunday, however, McClatchy Newspapers reported that Egyptian army soldiers had begun rounding up and detaining human rights activists, protesters and journalists by the dozens and without formal charges. Two New York Times journalists had earlier reported that when they were detained by Egyptian authorities, the soldiers simply handed them over to Egypt’s secret police, the Mukhabarat:
Anxiety turned to anticipation when we were driven to a military base. The military had been the closest thing Egypt had to a guarantor of stability and we thought once we explained who we were and provided documentation we would be allowed to go to our hotel.
In a strange exchange that only made sense later, Ms. Mekhennet asked a soldier, “Where are you taking us?” The soldier answered: “My heart goes out to you. I’m sorry.”
After driving to several more bases we were told we were being handed over to the Mukhabarat at their headquarters in Nasr City.
And if witness accounts—like this one detailed in the Washington Post—are any indication, the military itself isn’t being as hands off as it has promised:
On Sunday, the Cairo bureau chief for al-Jazeera English, Ayman Mohyeldin, a U.S. citizen, was detained. He was held in Tahrir Square in a makeshift holding cell. Mohyeldin, who was released Sunday night, said he was blindfolded and his hands were bound for five hours. When the blindfold was removed, he said, he saw other detainees being punched, kicked and slapped by soldiers. He was also interrogated before a military officer arrived and ordered his release.
Tantawi has in the past rejected any notion of making U.S. military funding to Egypt conditional “on human rights or any other grounds,” the cables say. As we’ve noted, Defense Secretary Gates has agreed with that position, and given that the U.S. has not yet launched any review of the military aid, unless Congress takes action to withhold future appropriations, the aid will likely continue regardless of what soldiers in Egypt are—or aren’t—doing.