Does anyone like Mubarak’s new deputy prime minister?

The latest Egyptian official to receive a battlefield promotion amid Hosni Mubarak’s machinations to hold power is Mohammed Hussein Tantawi (above left), Egypt’s defense minister, who now finds himself holding down the job of deputy prime minister in addition to his duties as military chief. Middle East analyst Stephen P. Cohen spoke today with Egyptian ...

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

The latest Egyptian official to receive a battlefield promotion amid Hosni Mubarak's machinations to hold power is Mohammed Hussein Tantawi (above left), Egypt's defense minister, who now finds himself holding down the job of deputy prime minister in addition to his duties as military chief. Middle East analyst Stephen P. Cohen spoke today with Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman -- who was promoted from intelligence chief over the weekend -- and told Politico's Laura Rozen that Suleiman and Tantawi are planning for a peaceful transition from Mubarak's rule.

Military-to-military relations have long been the cornerstone of the U.S. government's relationship with Egypt -- the latter receives some $1.3 billion a year in military aid from the United States -- which means that Tantawi figures prominently in the Washington-Cairo relations documented in the WikiLeaks cables, though rarely in a good way. The Tantawi described in the cables by U.S. and Israeli officials and Egyptian informants is an out-of-touch bureaucrat, emblematic of an Egyptian military that is unprepared for 21st-century needs like border security and counterterrorism.

The latest Egyptian official to receive a battlefield promotion amid Hosni Mubarak’s machinations to hold power is Mohammed Hussein Tantawi (above left), Egypt’s defense minister, who now finds himself holding down the job of deputy prime minister in addition to his duties as military chief. Middle East analyst Stephen P. Cohen spoke today with Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman — who was promoted from intelligence chief over the weekend — and told Politico‘s Laura Rozen that Suleiman and Tantawi are planning for a peaceful transition from Mubarak’s rule.

Military-to-military relations have long been the cornerstone of the U.S. government’s relationship with Egypt — the latter receives some $1.3 billion a year in military aid from the United States — which means that Tantawi figures prominently in the Washington-Cairo relations documented in the WikiLeaks cables, though rarely in a good way. The Tantawi described in the cables by U.S. and Israeli officials and Egyptian informants is an out-of-touch bureaucrat, emblematic of an Egyptian military that is unprepared for 21st-century needs like border security and counterterrorism.

An August 2009 cable signed by U.S. Amb. Margaret Scobey describes Tantawi as “one of the chief impediments to transforming our security relationship,” and notes that “the tactical and operational readiness of the Egyptian Armed Forces (EAF) has degraded” over the course of the defense minister’s nearly two-decade tenure. Another Scobey-signed cable from March 2009 complains that Tantawi’s machinations have screwed up U.S.-Egyptian efforts to catch smugglers along the Egypt-Gaza border.

While Tantawi is viewed as having no real political aspirations of his own, he was apparently considered an obstacle by Gamal Mubarak, Hosni’s son and once heir-apparent to the presidency. In an April 2007 cable, an Egyptian parliamentarian speculates (wrongly) that Tantawi’s days — as well as Suleiman’s — could be numbered, telling embassy officials that Tantawi and Suleiman “are increasingly viewed as a threat by Gamal and those around him.” And then there are the Israelis: In a July 2009 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, Israeli Ministry of Defense Political-Military Chief Amos Gilad complains that “the Egyptian military led by Defense Minister Tantawi continues to train and exercise as if ‘Israel was its only enemy.'”

But given the question mark hanging over the loyalties of the Egyptian Army in the continuing upheaval, the most serious issue for Tantawi is probably how his subordinates regard him. A military analyst at the American University in Cairo tells the author of a September 2008 cable that the mid-level officers in the Egyptian Army don’t think much of Tantawi: “These officers refer to Tantawi as ‘Mubarak’s poodle,’ [the analyst] said,” according to the cable, “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.'”

Charles Homans is a special correspondent for the New Republic and the former features editor of Foreign Policy.

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