“Today, I lost a father, a teacher, a human being who was proud and protective of his country. I have learned much from the example of dedication to the nation he set. Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi rose to some of the most difficult challenges Egypt has faced in its contemporary history. He loved and faithfully served Egypt and its people. I offer my sincerest condolences to the great people of Egypt.”
With these poignant words, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi mourned the loss of the military leader who passed away on Tuesday, 21 September 2021. The president led Tantawi’s funeral procession and announced a three-day state of official mourning.
Field Marshal Tantawi’s career is an exemplary record of service to his country. He took part in the War of Attrition and the October 1973 War, rising quickly through the ranks. He was appointed minister of defence in 1991, a post he held until 2011, making him the longest serving defence minister in Egypt’s history. Between 2011 and 2012 he was head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), occupying this pivotal leadership role during the most crucial juncture in Egypt’s recent political and military history.
President Al-Sisi has declared a state of national mourning and a large military funeral has been arranged in honour of one of Egypt’s foremost military leaders.
Born in 1935, Tantawi graduated from Military Academy in 1956, the year of the tripartite invasion of Egypt. During the October 1973 War he commanded the 16th infantry regiment which seized bridgeheads on the eastern bank of the Suez Canal and destroyed most Israeli targets in the area. In a rare recording, Tantawi said the 16th infantry regiment was one of the first to cross the canal, deploying anti-tank snipers and raising the Egyptian flag on the eastern bank before the main body of forces crossed. The same regiment went on to emerge victorious from the “Chinese Farm” battle, one of the most gruelling confrontations of the October War.
Tantawi was defence minister during the second Gulf war which ended with the liberation of Kuwait. The Egyptian army was a key participant in the coalition that fought the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
During his period as defence minister Tantawi opposed structural changes to the military and its functions based on Western theories. He was also opposed to many of the policies pursued by the Mubarak regime during its last decade in power, often making his criticisms known.
The most dramatic point in Tantawi’s career followed the 25 January Revolution and the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. It was Tantawi who rescued Egypt from the collapse that was the fate of other Arab Spring countries. “Egypt will never fall,” he famously declared upon shouldering the burdens as chair of SCAF. Countless military and political figures have testified to how competently Tantawi negotiated the precarious moment after Mubarak stepped down and Egypt was on the threshold of anarchy.
As chair of SCAF Tantawi deftly handled the Muslim Brotherhood, and had no illusions about what the organisation would do once in power. President Al-Sisi addressed this point in his tribute, saying “it pained Field Marshal Tantawi deeply that he would have to hand over power to [a particular faction] and that his name would go down in history for that.” While the interim arrangements left Tantawi no choice, his close associates say he had faith in the Egyptian people’s ability to understand the nature of Muslim Brotherhood rule and draw the appropriate conclusions. The 30 June 2013 Revolution proved him correct.
Once in power the Muslim Brotherhood dismissed Tantawi as defence minister as part of their bid to take over the military establishment and change its creed. Their plans, though, went askew: Al-Sisi, who assumed the post, continued the course Tantawi had begun in order to safeguard the state from collapse. This is among the reasons why the current generation of army officers feels not just admiration but deep gratitude to the man Al-Sisi described as “a father and a teacher”.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly