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Tantawi is no hero: He oversaw some of the most brutal massacres in Egypt’s modern history

September 22, 2021 at 2:53 pm

An Egyptian woman holds up a poster picturing former Defence Minister Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, in Cairo, Egypt on 25 January 2012 [AMRO MARAGHI/AFP/Getty Images]

The former Defence Minister Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who died yesterday, is trending on Twitter in Egypt.

Whilst the state-run media praise him as a “loyal son”, a “military symbol” and a “hero” of the October War, Egyptians say he has blood on his hands.

Tantawi became a known face both within Egypt and outside of it around the time of the 2011 Egyptian uprising when he headed the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces after Hosni Mubarak’s ouster.

But instead of navigating the country through a fair political transition, under his leadership Egypt’s security forces cracked down heavily on protesters in Tahrir Square, particularly during the Battle of the Camel, and instilled polarisation and division among the people.

Tantawi has been described as Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s godfather and the architect of the return of the generals to power. Under his rule thousands were arrested and tried in military courts. There were brutal massacres, including at the Maspero state television building.

Eight months after Mubarak stood down, protesters marched to the Maspero building to demonstrate against the army’s failure to do anything about the destruction of a church in Upper Egypt. That day, 28 civilians were crushed under army tanks.

Yesterday, Michael Mikanoo Armanuous, an actor who lives in Cairo, posted the names of the victims on Facebook. Amongst the comments underneath, one reads: “The blood of these martyrs is on [Tantawi’s] hands.”

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In late 2011, demonstrators gathered to express anger at the ruling SCAF party, who were only supposed to be an interim government negotiating the transition of power yet had so far failed to implement real change.

Protesters on the ground say they now believe that SCAF coordinated and agreed to attack protesters, especially women – both physically and sexually – as a deterrent, in a shocking development since women had mostly been left alone under the previous administration.

After an image of a woman on her back with a black abaya around her shoulders exposing her blue underwear went viral, protesters chanted, “Tantawi stripped your women naked, come join us” and “the daughters of Egypt are a red line.”

At this time, 51 people died in a battle which lasted six days against the security forces on Mohamed Mahmoud Street in Cairo.

It wasn’t the first time Tantawi’s name was used directly by demonstrators – in April 2011 people gathered in the iconic Tahrir Square and chanted, “Tantawi is Mubarak,” as analysts tried to explain the deep state – Mubarak had gone but the web of power behind him remained. Tantawi was also known as Mubarak’s poodle.

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In 2012, over 74 of Al-Ahly’s fans, the Ultras, were killed in the Port Said massacre after Al-Masry fans attacked them with knives, clubs and rocks. Some were trampled to death as fans tried to escape, whilst others were thrown from the stands.

According to eyewitnesses, police at the stadium did not move to save them and questions were raised as to why they had not been searched, why the stadium lights were switched off as the Al-Masry fans attacked and why the doors to the escape route were locked.

The Ultras were on the front line of the 2011 protests, and many drew the conclusion that security forces were settling old scores. “We want your head, you traitor Tantawi,” the Ultras wrote on Facebook at the time, blaming the former defence minister for creating the political and social climate that laid the groundwork for the massacre.

Yesterday Al Jazeera sports analyst Dr Alaa Sadek wrote on Twitter: “Today we can accept condolences for the Al-Ahly martyrs in the Port Said massacre. Retribution may be delayed, but it is not absent.”

In 2012, after he had been defence minister for almost 21 years, Tantawi was sacked by Mohamed Morsi when he was elected into power, along with another senior military figure Sami Enan, in an attempt to end decades of military rule in the country.

However, Morsi appointed Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in his place as defence minister, a close ally of Tantawi, and when he appeared in public, Tantawi was often by his side. Al-Sisi went on not just to overthrow the Muslim Brotherhood but to spearhead a cruel and protracted campaign of persecution against the opposition.

As Tantawi’s death has sparked a new wave of outrage, Al-Sisi has not only promised to name a major military base in Cairo after him but also released a statement in his defence: “That man is innocent of any blood spilled during [2011-2012] clashes of Mohamed Mahmoud street, Port Said Stadium, Maspero Corniche, Institut D’Egypte and any conspiracy that was aimed at undermining the state. I swear to God he is innocent of all that. And, all who were in charge at the time are innocent.”

This proves that until his death Tantawi remained a part of the old guard and now carries their legacy of corruption, impunity and brutality. Rather than the image of a hero pushed by the ruling regime, through the trending Arabic hashtag Egyptians are calling for a different man to go down in history: “Remember the massacres in which your dead were killed.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.