Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, commander in chief of the Egyptian armed forces, meeting with antigovernment protesters in Tahrir Square, Cairo, February 4, 2011. When President Hosni Mubarak resigned on February 11, Tantawi became the chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the de facto head of state.

Cairo’s military courthouse is a nine-story slab of white concrete that rises just off the main road in the Nasr City district, a sprawling zone of condominiums and government buildings designed in part by President Gamal Abdel Nasser following Egypt’s 1952 coup. On a recent afternoon, two armored personnel carriers, guarded by military policemen with red berets, were parked in front of the building, known to Egyptians by the name “C-28.” The MPs were keeping an eye on a small group of protesters who were milling around the entrance gate. While I talked with two lawyers in the heat, a slim young man tried to hurdle over a turnstile at the entrance and unleashed a string of obscenities when MPs pushed him back. A heavyset woman in a black abaya joined in the name-calling, and a melee erupted, with civilians and soldiers screaming at each other and others trying to restrain them. Eventually, the man and the woman were dragged off by their friends and relatives.

Such displays of emotion are not uncommon at C-28 these days. Since February 11, when President Hosni Mubarak ceded power to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, between seven and ten thousand civilians have been brought before closed military tribunals inside this fortresslike building. The civilian courts that normally would have tried them were not functioning in the first weeks after the revolution, but now, according to human rights officials, that’s no longer the case. Those arrested have been charged with a variety of offenses, including “thuggery,” assault, and threatening the security of the Egyptian state—a catch-all phrase once employed by Mubarak’s despised ancien regime.

Those accused include pro-democracy demonstrators, bloggers, and other prominent activists swept up in the chaos that preceded and followed Mubarak’s fall, as well as common criminals and bystanders. Thousands have been convicted and sentenced to terms of between several months and five years in prison. The procedures tend to be swift and are conducted before single judges in military uniform who are not known for scrupulous attention to the evidence. In late June, Amnesty International said that trying civilians in military courts violates “fundamental requirements of due process and fair trials.”

According to the military leadership, the tribunals are necessary because of the collapse of the State Security police and the disarray of the state prosecutor’s office. Major General Hassan al-Roueini, the member of the Supreme Council who is responsible for confirming verdicts, has pledged that the tribunals will be phased out as the prosecutor’s office gets up to speed. “I’d like to give the army the benefit of the doubt,” I was told by Ragia Omran, a human rights attorney who has defended scores of activists. But Omran also fears that the trials are one more indication that the Supreme Council—the nineteen-member committee of generals that rules Egypt—is determined to halt the revolution’s momentum. Omran told me that the detentions and prosecutions are “a way to get people afraid.”

In April, Michael Nabil Sanad, a blogger known as “Son of Ra,” was brought before a military tribunal after criticizing the Supreme Council on his blog and calling for an end to military conscription. He was also “accused of breaking into military websites and revealing secrets,” I was told by his attorney, Osama Muhammed Khalil, who calls those charges “a complete fabrication.” Nabil was sentenced to three years in jail for “insulting the military institution, dissemination of false news and disturbing public security.” Two other bloggers, Khalil said, have also been put on trial.

On a rickety wooden bench in front of the courthouse, I met Taher Magady, who had come to C-28 to follow the case of his younger brother, Loai. A twenty-one-year-old blogger with a large following, Loai had been detained by the military, along with forty-eight other people, during violent clashes in Tahrir Square in late June. Taher—and several eyewitnesses I talked to—insisted that Loai had been standing alone in an alley, tweeting, when he was arrested by police, then turned over to the army. “This began as a people’s revolution, but it has turned into a coup”—a military coup—Taher told me. He drew a distinction between ordinary soldiers, who had joined in solidarity with civilians during the revolution, and the Supreme Council. “The soldiers are with the people,” he told me. “The leaders are not.”

Who are the leaders? And what do they really want? In the first weeks following the departure of Mubarak, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces was widely celebrated as a defender of the revolution and supporter of a new, democratic Egypt. In short order the council dissolved the rubber-stamp parliament, suspended the constitution, and set a timetable for new elections, beginning with a vote for a new parliament in September—much too soon in the view of many dissidents. (On July 13, the military council announced that while registration and the campaign period will start in September, the election will be held by November.)


They also moved swiftly to bring to account some of the regime’s most hated figures. Habib al-Adly, the minister of the interior responsible for the bloody crackdown on protesters, was jailed in February and three months later convicted of money-laundering and profiteering. In April, the independent prosecutor ordered the arrest of Mubarak and his sons, Gamal and Alaa; they were later charged with corruption and murder. To the jubilation and disbelief of millions, the two brothers—symbols of nepotistic privilege—were jailed at Tora Farm prison in a southern district of Cairo. Mubarak, meanwhile, was taken to a military hospital in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, where he has been undergoing observation while awaiting trial.

But the Supreme Council’s intentions and ambitions are not so clear anymore. The focus of much public anger and uncertainty is Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, commander in chief of the armed forces, head of the Supreme Council—and the man who calls the shots in post-Mubarak Egypt. Tantawi became popular on February 4, when he walked into Tahrir Square to inspect his troops and, while there, met with a delegation of protesters in front of the Egyptian Museum.

Since then, however, he has largely confined himself to the Ministry of Defense in the Heliopolis district of Cairo—where he issues decrees and hands out orders to the members of the transitional cabinet. At a huge gathering in Tahrir Square in April called the “Friday of Warning,” protest leaders called Tantawi a dictator and demanded that he resign. It was the first public expression of discontent with the Supreme Council leader. Several anti-Tantawi groups have recently appeared on Facebook. The day I arrived in Cairo, a photo circulated on the Internet showing Tantawi bowling in Cairo with the Crown Prince of Qatar. One Egyptian blogger captioned the photo “Bowling for the Counter-Revolution.”

Born in Cairo in 1935, Tantawi was commissioned an officer in 1956 and led troops in all three wars with Israel. After Mubarak succeeded the assassinated president Anwar Sadat in 1981, Tantawi became chief of the Presidential Guard, an elite unit of the army. A decade later, Mubarak fired his minister of defense, Lieutenant General Youssef Sabri Abu Taleb, whom he reportedly viewed as a rival for power. Tantawi, a loyal and uncharismatic figure, got his job and a promotion to field marshal. Over the next twenty years, Tantawi served obediently at Mubarak’s side, supporting his repressive policies while focusing on the military’s main peacetime activity: making money.

Under Tantawi’s stewardship, the military controls a labyrinth of companies that manufacture everything from medical equipment to laptops to television sets, as well as vast tracts of real estate, including the Sharm el-Sheikh resort where Mubarak owns a seaside palace. Robert Springborg, professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, has called the Egyptian military “a business conglomerate, like General Electric.” Tantawi is effectively the corporate head of this empire, with command of as much as 40 percent of the Egyptian economy.

Tantawi saw the stolid, careful Mubarak as the guarantor of Egyptian stability, I was told. Yet Mahmoud Zaher, sixty-one, a former high- ranking officer in Egyptian intelligence, told me that the relationship between the two men had deteriorated sharply in recent years. The catalyst, he said, was “Suzanne Mubarak’s scheme” to elevate her eldest son Gamal to the presidency. At the end of the 1990s, Gamal returned from a banking job in London and was given an entry-level position in the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). Soon he was selling off large portions of state-owned enterprises to business cronies—and NDP stalwarts—such as Ahmed Ezz, who gained a near monopoly over steel production (and who was one of the first party figures jailed after the revolution).

Tantawi, along with Mubarak’s chief of security, General Omar Suleiman, bitterly opposed the plan to have Gamal succeed Mubarak, and for several reasons. The military leaders have an institutional aversion to a civilian taking power in Egypt; they were convinced that Gamal lacked the intellect for the job, and they feared that his privatization schemes would dismantle the military’s enormous business holdings. “They went to Mubarak repeatedly, and they told him, ‘Gamal is useless,'” Zaher told me. “‘He is not correct, he is not acceptable to the people.’ They handed in their resignations several times, but Mubarak turned them down.” Distrust and discord between Tantawi and Mubarak grew intense, Zaher said, “but anybody in such a high position would be careful to conceal it.”


When protests gathered force in Tahrir Square, Zaher told me, Tantawi saw that the military had more to lose by sticking with the Mubaraks then by bringing them down. “Without the revolution—there would have been a crisis. The armed forces were sick of [Gamal]—and disagreed with the succession plan…. The only solution seen was a coup, but that would not be acceptable to the world.”

Now, Zaher told me, the estrangement between Tantawi and Mubarak—along with pressure from “the street”—made it increasingly likely that the Supreme Council chief would push ahead with the trial of his former benefactor. Despite widespread belief that the Supreme Council was trying to shield Mubarak from justice, Zaher insisted that there was disagreement largely only over the timing of such a process. “Some say, ‘put him in jail now.’ Others say, ‘no, let him finish his medication, we have to [consider] his age and his health. If we put him into a courtroom while he’s sick, this is against humanity.'”

Uncertainty about Tantawi’s intentions extends far beyond the Mubarak trial. Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and one of the main leaders of the pro-democracy protests, says not only that the Mubarak trial will take place before long, but also that Tantawi is sincere about the transition process. ElBaradei has met twice with Tantawi and his chief of staff, Sami Hafez Anan, in recent weeks, and was assured that they were eager “to get out of the business of governance as quickly as possible.” Tantawi, ElBaradei said, has chafed at running the justice system, drawing up budgets, and handling other quotidian tasks once done by civilian ministers. Tantawi’s perspective, he assured me, was that “this is a hot potato, we want to get rid of it in six months’ time.” He added: “I think they know they are not equipped to run the country—a place laden with every sort of problem. They want to deliver the goods, and go back to the barracks.” “I have a gut feeling,” ElBaradei said, “that the military doesn’t have the ambition [for the presidency] and they know that the people don’t have the stomach to accept another military guy after sixty years of military rule.”

Yet Negad al-Borai, an Egyptian lawyer and a human rights activist who has closely followed the military for two decades, believes that Tantawi’s pledge to turn power over to civilians is largely cosmetic. The most likely outcome, he said, is that Tantawi and his generals will allow free elections to create an independent parliament. It is unlikely, he says, that they would allow the presidency to slip from their grasp after sixty years. The military would need to retain executive power, al-Borai believes, to guarantee its control over the economy, although it will likely tolerate considerable power in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. He imagines a sequence of events in which a prominent general would resign—according to the rules stipulated by the Egyptian constitution—and, with a good chance at winning, run for president as a civilian. Anan, sixty-three, a dynamic figure who has close ties to the US military, is one possible candidate. So is Omar Suleiman. The aging Tantawi, Mahmoud Zaher assured me, “has no political ambitions.”

After the revolution, the Supreme Council established a page on Facebook and has issued sixty-six proclamations to reassure the pro-democracy movement of its good intentions—although most of the movement then voted no when the military proposed what clearly seemed premature elections, which would mainly favor the formidably organized Muslim Brotherhood while other, more recent parties would be at a disadvantage. Proclamation 59 pledged that the military “will not take over power” in Egypt. Proclamation 65 announced a plan to budget $20 million for a “center for health and social care” for “the families of martyrs of the 25th of January,” as well as those injured during the protests. The most recent proclamation, which followed the late June clashes in Tahrir Square between protesters and security police, condemned the violence but carefully avoided blaming pro- democracy activists. The culprits, the council declared, were “dark forces…who have no excuse but the destruction of the national security and the stability of Egypt.” Yet the council’s Facebook pronouncements have failed to calm the suspicions that Tantawi and his council are up to no good.

On Friday, July 8, I attended the so-called Day of Retribution in Tahrir Square, a protest intended to pressure the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to arrest corrupt NDP ex-officials and police snipers, end military tribunals, and speed up the trial of Hosni Mubarak. When I arrived at around four o’clock, a fleet of orange ambulances were lined up at the edge of the square, and vendors were doing a brisk business selling bottled water and a succulent green fruit called teen shoki to demonstrators wilting in the hundred-degree heat.

The previous day the Judicial Investigation Commission, an independent office set up by the military prosecutor, had announced that another two dozen onetime civilian officials and allies of Mubarak would face murder and attemped murder charges. The announcement was widely seen as an effort to neutralize protest. But the crowds, if nowhere near the size of those that gathered at the height of the revolution, still extended to the edges of Tahrir Square. (Observers would later put the turnout at about 80,000.)

Two stages had been set up in the center of the square, and a pair of activists were shouting slogans over each other through loudspeakers. “Half a revolution is not enough,” one proclaimed. “The revolution is still in the square,” said another. I climbed onto one of the stages and, amid the racket of competing orators, met Khalid Talima, twenty-seven, a leader of a group called the Youth Coalition. He had met with Tantawi and two other members of the Supreme Council in late February, he told me, and found the exchange “comfortable.” But a March attack on Tahrir Square protesters by the army had changed his opinion, and he had boycotted further attempts by the Supreme Council to get in touch with the democracy movement. “Once it seemed like we could deal with each other,” he said. But now “we recognize that their interests are different from ours.” I asked him what he would say to Tantawi if he could meet him again. “I would tell him,” he told me, “that it is time for him to go.” At the moment, there is no sign that he will.

—July 20, 2011