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In Egypt, Controversy Over a Field Marshall in Mufti

September 29, 2011

The Caliph Omar is said to have walked the streets incognito rewarding those who obeyed his new laws and punishing those who did not. The Abbasid monarch Harun Ar-Rashid, of 1001 Nights fame, is also said to have wandered the streets alone, without princely raiment, to to take the pulse of the people.

So one might argue that there was ample precedent for Field Marshall Tantawi to appear on Qasr an-Nil street Sep. 26 in civilian clothes, without an escort or entourage, shaking hands and speaking with the people. But the event turned controversial after it aired on state TV.

The controversy stemmed not from his actions per se, but from those of state television, which broadcast the event as newsworthy. One of the broadcasters suggested that “the Field Marshal is an appropriate candidate for the post of president of the republic.”

Since the Field Marshall has promised to hand over power to an elected civilian government, this raised the hackles of many in the blogosphere and in the op-ed pages of the independent newspapers.

The military spokesman said people were making a mountain out of a molehill. He said that Tantawi had gone to see a relative in the neighborhood and, while there, had taken a walk and talked to some residents. People got excited, wanting to shake his hands and take his picture with their cell phones. It was not supposed to be a media event; the poor quality of the footage shows it was shot with somebody’s cell phone.

According to the military, he’s done this before, in Tahrir and elsewhere, without it getting on TV.

And there’s the rub. Because it was on tv, it ceases to be a private act and becomes a public action–and as such, a political act. So the question of “what does it mean?” is intimately tied to the question, “Why did state tv air this story?”

Was state TV just sucking up to the Field Marshall? Or was this a trial balloon?

Does Tantawy have political ambitions? What, for example, would stop Tantawi from suddenly resigning his post and running as president–a dark horse candidate? Or worse, what if he broke his promise and ran while still the nation’s highest ranking military officer? If he actually won, would it be electoral democracy or a kind of military coup with lots of public support?

Every day there are new twists in the ongoing ambiguities of Egyptian politics.

One Comment leave one →
  1. MPeterson permalink
    October 6, 2011 8:52 pm

    On Wed. Oct. 5, Field Marshall Tantawi held a press conference and assured everyone: “There is no candidate of the military establishment in the presidential elections.”

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