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Field Marshal Tantawi, who ruled Egypt after Mubarak’s ouster, dies at 85

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Field Marshal Hussein, the former head of the military council that ruled Egypt after longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak was ousted during the 2011 Arab Spring uprising, died on Tuesday, Egypt’s presidency said. He was 85.

After his stint as Egypt‘s de facto leader, he was soon sacked by the country’s first freely elected president, the Islamist Mohamed Morsi, and spent his remaining years largely out of public view.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi paid tribute to him in a statement that confirmed his death, calling him one of “Egypt’s most loyal sons”.

“He dedicated his life to serving the nation for more than half a century… (He was) a statesman who took responsibility for running the country during a very critical time,” the statement added, referring to the tumult after the 2011 revolution.

The European Union’s delegation in Cairo offered its condolences in a tweet, saying he had served Egypt for “decades in crucial roles throughout his career”.

Sisi declared a period of national mourning, without specifying how many days.

“I swear… this man is innocent of any blood (spilled) during that period,” Sisi said in reference to when the military was in power for over a year and was implicated in the killing of protesters.

The military’s continuity figure after Mubarak’s ouster 

Like all Egyptian leaders from the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952 to the 2012 election of Morsi, Tantawi came from the ranks of the military.

A decorated veteran of wars against Israel in 1956, 1967 and 1973, Tantawi was defence minister for 21 years, covering most of Mubarak’s long presidency.

He led the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that ruled Egypt for a year-and-a-half after Mubarak was pushed from power in February 2011, the second leader to fall in the Arab Spring protest movement sweeping the region.

Tantawi was too close to Mubarak to be personally popular with protesters who led the uprising in Tahrir Square, though the army’s move to appease the demonstrators by deposing Mubarak won some support for the military as an institution.

But while Tantawi sought to give a more down-to-earth image after assuming power, being pictured chatting with passers-by near Tahrir Square, many saw him as a continuity figure seeking to preserve the privileges of the military.

From infantryman to country’s ruler

Born in 1935, and of Nubian origin, Tantawi began his career as an infantryman in 1956 during the Suez Crisis, a position he held during the 1967 and 1973 wars against Israel.

He served as Egypt’s minister of defence and military production for 21 years and became the army chief in 1995.

Tantawi was often perceived as a possible presidential candidate after Mubarak’s ouster, but his age and reported ill health counted against him.

Those who knew him felt he would likely have failed to meet the surging democratic aspirations of Egyptians after Mubarak’s ouster.

‘Charming but change-resistant’

A March 2008 US diplomatic cable published on activist website WikiLeaks described Tantawi as “charming and courtly” but also “aged and change-resistant”.

“He and Mubarak are focused on regime stability and maintaining the status quo through the end of their time,” the cable warned.

The army was widely praised for allowing anti-Mubarak protests during the uprising, and the junta vowed to pave the way “to an elected civil authority to build a free democratic state”.

But the joy of millions of demonstrators soon turned into anger, accusing the military of dragging its feet in launching democratic reforms.

Morsi, less than two months after his election as Egypt’s leader in June 2012, sacked Tantawi and, fatefully, replaced him with then military intelligence chief, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Sisi went on to topple Morsi after street protests against the Islamist’s single year of divisive rule, and himself became president in 2014.

After his sacking, Tantawi largely kept a low profile, although he was seen attending the inauguration of the “new Suez Canal” in 2015.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)

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