Opinion | Opinion

News analysis: Who is in the military junta ruling Egypt? More unknowns than knowns

WASHINGTON (JTA) – One guy we know, and we’re pretty sure he’s not in charge.

The other guy we don’t know so well, and it looks like he might be in charge.

The other three guys — who knows?

The five figures comprising Egypt’s Supreme Military Council are commanding the rapt attention of a world already transfixed by the unrest that last week unseated President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s autocratic leader for 30 years.

They appeared on state television in a pose typical of the region’s leaders: sitting along a table, ramrod straight and inscrutable. They are now running the Egyptian show, although they have promised speedy elections to replace Mubarak and the parliament they dissolved.

The Sphinx-like TV pose accrued a Sphinx-like riddle in the wake of the sudden transfer of power: Who exactly are they?

Extraordinarily, the Egyptian sources routinely tapped by Westerners for inside information were responding to queries this week with a shrug emblematic of the degree of how much has changed in Egypt. They don’t seem to know much either.

Ehud Ya’ari, an Arab affairs expert with Israel’s Channel 2, said it  was because Mubarak for years had played his cards close to his vest. He and a small circle of advisers were the only interlocutors with Israel and the West.

“We have a big problem here: We don’t know the Egyptian army,” Ya’ari told a conference call convened by the Jewish Federations of North America. “The Egyptian army was kept by Mubarak outside all dealing with Israel except for liaison officers in the Sinai. Israelis do not know the Egyptian generals who now form what I would describe as a military junta.”

For the record they are Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the defense minister; Lt. Gen. Sami Hafez Enan, the military chief of staff; Vice Adm. Mohab Mamish, commander of the Navy; Air Marshal Rada Mahmoud Hafez Mohamed, commander of the Air Force; and Lt. Gen. Abd El Aziz Seif-Eideen, commander of the Air Defense.

The two figures emerging as the ones to watch are Tantawi and Enan. They both are known to have served in wars against Israel, in 1967 and 1973. What they did, however, is hardly known, much less the stuff of legend.

Mubarak, by contrast, made his name between those two wars when he resisted Soviet pressure, as Air Force commander, to run raids over the Sinai. That made his reputation as a man wise enough to pick his battles — one that served him well until his fruitless effort to resist calls to resign.

Tantawi, who is in his mid-70s, already has been dubbed “Mubarak’s poodle,” although this might derive simply from his having served in the outgoing government. He is, in any case, a known quantity.

“We know a lot more about Tantawi than Enan in terms of roles they played in the former regime and this regime,” said J. Scott Carpenter, the deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs from 2004 to 2007 and now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

What is known about Tantawi suggests that he is not in control, although he is nominally the most senior officer on the council.

“The officers, from a number of generals and colonels on down, don’t hold him in high regard,” Carpenter said.

Tantawi, trained by the Soviets, is seen as the old guard by a younger generation of officers trained by the United States to be forward thinking, according to Joel Rubin, an analyst with the National Security Network who during the last Bush administration headed the State Department’s Egypt desk.

“He’s perceived as a yes man to Mubarak — not charismatic, not someone perceived as leading a rebellion,” Rubin said.

Tantawi was visible but did not make himself known, Carpenter said.

“I’ve only met him a couple of times,” he said, “and both times I have been struck how he’s not dynamic, hard to converse with, not forthcoming — he doesn’t seem to get it.”

Worse, he apparently had a tin ear when it came to cultivating loyalty.

“He’s mishandled some of the relations he’s had with senior military officers, being late with salary payments, holiday bonuses,” Carpenter said.

Rubin said Enan, believed to be between 64 and 68, had better relations with U.S. officials. He was the point man for military relations with the United States, meaning he handled the requests for equipment through the $1.3 billion in U.S. defense assistance Egypt gets annually — that is believed to comprise as much as 80 percent of the country’s materiel.

Enan was in Washington on just such a consultation with his Pentagon counterparts when the protests erupted on Jan. 25.

“He understands our culture, he’s someone who’s seen as responsible and responsive,” Rubin said.

Carpenter said that was the impression he got from the Americans he spoke to, but he noted that outside of the interactions on defense assistance, not much else was known about Enan.

“Our military perceives him as thoughtful and very active,” Carpenter said. “He was one of the people they were talking to during the run-up” to Mubarak’s ouster, “when they thought there would be real violence.”

One narrative, as related by Rubin, has it that Enan clashed with Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman over who controlled the transition. Under the Suleiman plan, Mubarak would have remained as a purely titular president.

Suleiman had the upper hand until Mubarak, in a defiant Feb. 10 speech, went off script and insisted he was keeping some powers. That led to his formal ouster — and Enan emerging triumphant. Suleiman is now out of the picture.

Carpenter heard the same story, but from American officials. From Egyptian interlocutors he heard that Enan had argued within the military for a tougher line against protesters. The fact that the military held back, according to this narrative, suggests that Enan was overruled.

But by whom?

“No one knows,” Carpenter said.