CAIRO: This file picture shows Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi announcing in a televised speech on Jan 24, 2012 the lifting of a decades-old state of emergency. – AFP

CAIRO: Egypt’s Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, who headed the military junta that ruled after president Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in the Arab Spring protests, has died at age 85, the government said yesterday. After his stint as Egypt’s de facto leader, he was soon sacked by the country’s first freely elected president, the Islamist Mohamed Morsi, and spent his remaining years largely out of public view.

A veteran of Egypt’s wars, Tantawi had long served as Mubarak’s defense minister and as chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. He became the acting head of state after an 18-day popular uprising ended Mubarak’s rule in early 2011. President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi paid tribute yesterday to Tantawi as one of “Egypt’s most loyal sons” who had served the nation for more than half a century and run it “during a very critical time”.

Sisi also absolved Tantawi of responsibility for killings while the military was in power, including of protesters in downtown Cairo and a Port Said sports stadium, saying: “I swear… this man is innocent of any blood (spilled) during that period.” Sisi, who has repeatedly credited Tantawi with his political career, declared a period of national mourning without specifying how many days.

The Egyptian Football Association scrapped any celebrations in a domestic Super Cup match yesterday. The US embassy in Cairo as well as the European Union’s delegation and the Arab League offered their condolences, along with Gulf allies Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

Tantawi was laid to rest later in a military funeral led by Sisi and attended by top military brass, ministers and Coptic Christian Pope Tawadros II. Soldiers marched carrying commemorative floral wreaths at the ceremony as a 21-gun salute sounded and a band played nationalistic songs. Like all Egyptian leaders from the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952 to the 2012 election of Morsi, Tantawi came from the ranks of the military.

Born in 1935, and of Nubian origin, Tantawi began his career as an infantryman in 1956. He served during the 1956 Suez Crisis, and in the 1967 and 1973 Middle East wars against the Zionist entity. After taking charge of the country, his ruling council quickly said Egypt would stay “committed” to its regional and international treaties, implicitly confirming its landmark 1979 peace treaty with the Zionist entity would remain intact.

He served as Egypt’s minister of defense and military production for 21 years and became the army chief in 1995. Despite being a close associate of Mubarak, Tantawi relented to public pressure and put the ex-president on trial on charges of inciting the killing of hundreds of protesters during the 2011 uprising. Tantawi was often perceived as a possible presidential candidate after Mubarak’s ouster, but his age, public opinion at the time and his reported ill health counted against him.

A March 2008 US diplomatic cable published on activist website WikiLeaks described Tantawi as “charming and courtly” but also “aged and change-resistant”. “He and Mubarak are focused on regime stability and maintaining the status quo through the end of their time,” the cable warned. The army was widely praised for allowing anti-Mubarak protests during the uprising, and the junta vowed to pave the way “to an elected civil authority to build a free democratic state”.

But the joy of millions of demonstrators soon turned into anger, accusing the military of dragging its feet in launching democratic reforms. Morsi, less than two months after his election as Egypt’s leader in June 2012, sacked Tantawi and, fatefully, replaced him with then military intelligence chief, Sisi. Sisi went on to topple Morsi after street protests against the Islamist’s single year of divisive rule, and himself became president in 2014. After his sacking, Tantawi largely kept a low profile, although he was seen attending the inauguration of the “new Suez Canal” in 2015. – AFP