Egypt Trades Torture Supervisor for 'Mubarak's Poodle'?

Egyptians celebrate military takeover, rather than former intelligence chief.

ByLee Ferran
January 25, 2011, 1:58 PM

Feb. 11, 2011 — -- As thousands in Egypt celebrate the end of Hosni Mubarak's 30-year reign today, authority in the North African nation has shifted to Defense Minister Hussein Tantawi, a man experts and some protestors said is undoubtedly a member of the old regime, but clean of the human rights abuses that plagued the state's intelligence and police agencies.

"He's the defense minister. He's a career officer... Anyone that serves the ministry for that long is part of the regime," Nathan Brown of George Washington University's Elliot School of International Affairs told ABC News. "I would be surprised if he kept that job that long without being loyal [to Mubarak]."

However, John Sifton, a former investigator with Human Rights Watch and author of two major reports on Egypt, said that as far as abuses, "in comparison with the civilian institutions, the military -- let's just say we have a lot more faith and optimism about what's going to happen" now that the military is in charge.

Egypt's recently appointed vice president, Omar Suleiman, made the announcement today that a military council, with Tantawi at its head, would wield power in the nation in Mubarak's place, even though several U.S. and Egyptian officials assumed Suleiman would inherit control.

Suleiman, formerly the country's intelligence chief and who oversaw the torture of an Al Qaeda suspect, would have represented little of the change the protestors were hoping for, experts said.

"Mubarak and Suleiman are the same person," said Emile Nakhleh, a former top Middle East analyst for the CIA. "They are not two different people in terms of ideology and reform."

CLICK HERE to read ABC News full report on Omar Suleiman.

Though they erupted in applause at the announcement Mubarak was leaving and Suleiman would not assume control, some protestors said Tantawi may not be much different.

"He's corrupt... He's not favored in the military. He's there because he stayed loyal to Hosni Mubarak," 26-year-old Abdelaziz Abdel Nabi told ABC News. "We're scared one of the military people steps up and controls us, like Mubarak did."

A leaked U.S. State Department cable posted on the website Wikileaks, which cited "academics and civilian analysts," called Tantawi "Mubarak's poodle" and said mid-level officers in the Egyptian military were infuriated by his incompetence and blind loyalty to Mubarak. Tantawi has served Egypt's military for years and fought alongside the U.S. and its allies in the 1991 Gulf War.

Brown said Tantawi, and Egypt' success in the immediate future, all depends on what the military council does with its power -- what role Suleiman may play, what institutions are put in place to ensure fair elections and, most importantly, how effective the council is at ending Egypt's long history of police brutality.

Tantawi's Major Advantage: He's Not Suleiman, Expert Says

Despite being a long-time member of the regime and close ally of Mubarak's through his presidency, Brown said Tantawi has a major advantage in the simple fact that the military is, for the most part, independent of the state's despised police and intelligence forces.

"They're completely separate," Brown said. "That intelligence, police state -- this was run in kind of a rough manner [and] the police and security service were untouchable... The military's task was defense of the homeland, not maintaining internal security."

The military itself has not been completely free from alleged abuse. Human Rights Watch recently published a report accusing military officials of kidnapping citizens and activists and interrogating them at military headquarters. But even in light of these allegations, Robert Springborg at the Center on Contemporary Conflict said the streets could be safer under the transitional military rule.

"The Ministry of the Interior forces were truly brutal and vicious. People couldn't deal with them but the military can of course," Springborg said. "That's a very good thing."

Police brutality was a major factor in sparking the protests as they originally evolved from a demonstration against the beating death of a 26-year-old Egyptian at the hands of police.

CLICK HERE to read ABC News full report on Khaled Said, The Face That Launched a Revolution.

Two weeks ago, Tantawi was appointed Deputy Prime Minister and visited Tahrir Square to meet with protestors.

While Human Rights Watch has filed report after report about alleged torture and abuse at the hands of the intelligence and police services, the advocacy group wrote a letter directly to Tantawi in the midst of the protests asking for help.

"The legitimacy of the Egyptian police and other internal security organs have long been tarnished by a record of human rights abuses, including the systematic use of torture... In contrast, the Egyptian military, which was called onto the streets on Friday 28 January, has so far shown commendable restraint and has been welcomed by the majority of protesters," the group wrote to Tantawi on its website.

CLICK HERE to read ABC News report in which victims describe torture at the hands of the state's intelligence service.

Protestor: Tantawi 'Won't Think of Doing Anything' Against the People

During the protests, the military attempted to potray itself as a neutral party, Brown said, perhaps in hopes of winning over the protestors. If that was the case, the cheers that greeted several top military officers in Tahrir Square and the warm reception a spokesman for the military received when he announced the army will guarantee their demands are met seem to be proof it succeeded.

"They never hurt us during the protests, which makes everyone trust them," 23-year-old protestor Sadia Abdel Dayem told ABC News. "And they were there to protect us when all the police forces withdrew, which also makes us trust them."

Beyond trust, Dayem said Tantawi will deliver on the military's promises because he has seen what the people can do.

"After all that's happened... He won't think of doing anything against people's opinions," she said.

ABC News' Deena Sami contributed to this report.

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