Scarcely four months after getting rid of Hosni Mubarak as president of Egypt, the Obama administration is now looking for ways to replace Field Marshall Mohammad Tantawi, Chairman of the Supreme Military Council, with another general, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources disclose.
Clearly, controlling a revolution and its aftermath by remote control is no walkover.
The US administration has become disillusioned with the head of the provisional ruling body on four counts:
1. He is inexplicably cozying up to the Muslim Brotherhood and this, Washington feels, is bound to assure the Brotherhood of victory in the first post-revolution election in September. The Americans this week accordingly switched around from insisting on the poll taking place on schedule and are bidding for its delay.
Tantawi refuses to hear of any postponement. He wants to hand governance over to the politicians, whoever they may be, and extricate himself and the army from running the country as soon as possible.
In support of his position, the field marshal maintains the panic about a Muslim Brotherhood takeover is exaggerated. He says he has the personal assurance of Naguib Sawiris, the Coptic Christian telecommunications tycoon and co-founder of the Free Egyptians Party, that he will place his entire fortune at the disposal of a campaign to stop the Muslim Brotherhood. (Forbes magazine estimates Sawiris is worth $3.5 billion).
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Cairo sources say Tantawi is naïve. The Brotherhood and the Egyptian street are powerful enough and unpredictable enough to beat the Sawiri fortune.
US officials find Tantawi strange and difficult
2. US officials have come to the conclusion that the March 20 referendum on constitutional changes, just six weeks after Hosni Mubarak was deposed, was premature, hasty, superficial and fell short of addressing Egypt's fundamental problems. To assure the country of a government stable and strong enough to hold back the Muslim Brotherhood and give the pro-democracy liberal parties which spearheaded the revolt a chance to gain power at the polls, a new, broader-based constitution needs to be put to referendum. Elections to parliament and the presidency should be put off until then.
3. Washington is disappointed in Tantawi's refusal to involve Egypt in any political or military ventures outside its borders. The administration had high hopes of Cairo in the role of standard-bearer of the Arab Revolt in Libya, Yemen and Sudan. However the field marshal has opted for the same isolationist posture adopted in recent years by the evicted president.
4. American officials find Tantawi's personality strange and difficult. Because of his iron reserve, they can't tell what his intentions are and find it hard to agree on anything, including what to do about the stalled economy.
They are therefore casting about for a general who would be easier to work with.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources say Obama administration's strategists are fully aware that changing Egyptian rulers twice in four months would be enormously embarrassing and damaging to US prestige. But with Saudi help they may hope to pull it off with minimal fallout.
And if a coming-together on Egypt helps bridge some of America's differences with Riyadh, the exercise might be turned to good account.
Common US-Saudi ground in Egypt?
Paradoxically, Cairo might be the easiest place for the US and Saudi Arabia to find common ground although Cairo and Mubarak's ouster were the prime cause of the falling-out between US President Barack Obama and Saudi King Abdullah.
A desire to start patching up those differences was signaled by president's decision Wednesday June 1 to send his counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan to Sudan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
He will be the first US official to visit Riyadh after the Defense Secretary Robert Gates and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon failed to ease the strains in their April visits.
Brennan's mission will be far from plain sailing.
On the civil wars in Sudan and Yemen and a host of other major issues, Washington and Riyadh are already moving forward on diametrically opposed paths. (See separate item on the broad gamut of Saudi activities)
So the US official may just confine himself to discussing joint efforts for fighting al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa while the two civil wars rage.
But on a deeper level, Brennan will be indicating that Washington is amenable to cooperating with Riyadh on limited, local problems on an ad hoc basis, which can be expanded if all goes well.
Egypt has moved forward as the first arena for ad hoc cooperation in the past week because Washington has now swung around and joined Riyadh's objections to a September election. The US is now ready to apply the brakes to Egypt's democratization until a new constitution is perfected.
The US and Saudi Arabia may also be able to work together to rescue the Egyptian economy from complete meltdown.