News / Middle East

Egypt's Military Ruler's Civilian Walkabout Causes Stir

Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, on video seen widely on YouTube, strolls the streets of Cairo in a tailored dark suit instead of his military uniform.
Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, on video seen widely on YouTube, strolls the streets of Cairo in a tailored dark suit instead of his military uniform.

Egypt's interim leader Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi took a walk in downtown Cairo this week, an event that has set off a firestorm of speculation in the media. Opinion is split over whether the outing was meant to show interest in his fellow citizens, or was a testing of the waters for a possible presidential bid.

A leading Cairo newspaper has dubbed it The Curious Case of Tantawi's Civilian Suit.  For it was the field marshal's clothes that caught the most attention.  

Tantawi had abandoned his military uniform, the familiar epaulets and medals, for a  tailored dark suit. Shaking hands and chatting with surprised residents, it took little imagination to see the resemblance to a politician making the rounds. The response was swift.  

Within hours Facebook pages sprang up devoted to the topic, including the unsubtle "Over My Dead Body Tantawi."  Critics also chimed in on Twitter, mocking the out-of-uniform leader as the "casual dictator."

Others noted the coincidence of state television cameras just happening on the supposedly spontaneous scene. And that it took place a day before the interim military government announced dates for the first post-uprising legislative elections.  

Not everyone is seeing a plot behind the walk.  

Hisham Kassem, publisher and long-time opponent of the previous government, finds the reaction "aggressive."  He concedes state TV has a history of staging events.

"But I personally don't tend to believe that they are trying to promote him, or that Field Marshal Tantawi is trying to promote himself for a civilian position, i.e. president," said Kassem. "I can't really make much of the incident."  

Comments on the street, as opposed to online, would seem to reinforce that position.  In a random sampling of Cairo residents, all said they appreciated Tantawi's gesture as one of  concern for how the people of Egypt are doing.  

But even those who downplay the event are appalled by the idea of the interim military leader becoming a permanent, nominally-civilian ruler.     

"Look, I have a lot of respect for the man and I think that really he is not going to run.  But, if he decides to run, I personally will fight him tooth and nail," said publisher Kassem.  

A President Tantawi, according to Kassem, would turn Egypt's popular, pro-democracy uprising into deceptive "window dressing."

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