While the High Army Council will need time to fix dates for presidential and parliamentary elections and the transition to civilian government, it acted within 24 hours from taking over from Hosni Mubarak to bring lawless outbreaks in Sinai under control by pumping extra strength into the peninsula on Saturday, Feb. 12.
That night Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak phoned the council head, Defense Minister Mohamed Tantawi, to thank him for transferring 900 men of two battalions of the 18th Division.
It was the second time in the eighteen days of the uprising that Israel consented to injecting military units into the peninsula whose demilitarization was enshrined in the 1979 peace treaty between the two countries. The Hamas-al Qaeda outbreaks had grown into a threat to the Egyptian presence in the strategic peninsula and to Israel's border security, as DEBKA reported on Feb. 8. Click here for story.
The defense minister also echoed Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who earlier welcomed the military council's pledge to honor "all regional and international obligations and treaties." After a sigh of relief in Jerusalem, the prime minister said: "The longstanding peace treaty between Israel and Egypt has greatly contributed to both countries and is "the cornerstone for peace and stability in the entire Middle East."
The 76-year old Egyptian field marshal's manner in the conversation with Barak was curt and to the point rather than affable.
In North Sinai, while the army was busy lifting Mubarak out of the president palace in Cairo, armed men of the Palestinian Hamas and Bedouin militias attacked Egyptian security forces, losing 10 gunmen in the ensuing clash. A request to curb the rampage also reached the Army Council from Washington. Members of the Multinational Force policing Sinai under the peace treaty, mostly Americans and Canadians, have been locked in their camps for nearly three weeks under virtual Hamas and Bedouin siege. (See debkafile Jan. 31)
The generals also went into action to restore law and order in Egypt's big cities and clean up the mess left by 18 days of round-the-clock demonstrations.
Saturday night, Tantawi held his first conversation with Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq and Interior Minister, Mahmoud Wagdy, the Mubarak -appointed ministers left in place for the interim. They discussed reassigning the Interior Ministry's security and police forces to regular beats. They disappeared from city streets after mobs of protesters chased them away on Jan. 21. Now, local military commanders have informed the High Army Council that it was not the army's job to maintain law and order and they must start pulling their men out of the cities and back to barracks to keep them from scattering.
debkafile's Cairo sources report that the division commanders did not ask for permission; they gave the high council's 25 generals due warning that the soldiers were to be phased out of the cities and it was necessary to get the police in to replace them.
This tenor of exchange placed a question mark over the measure of control the high military command exercises in the towns. There are signs that the division and brigade commanders in the field may be calling the shots in many instances. Some intelligence quarters in Washington are led to believe that the transition period may well throw up a charismatic field commander for taking over the presidential palace rather than a known civilian face.
None of the generals in the top command is either charismatic or particularly popular, certainly not the ageing Tantawi or Chief of Staff Gen. Sami Al-Anan.
The whereabouts of the deposed president are another unknown. According to one report making the rounds in Cairo Mubarak and family are not in Sharm el-Sheikh as claimed, but were flown by the army helicopter that carried him out of the capital Friday, Feb. 11, to one of the army facilities on the Red Sea coast of southern Egypt – possibly Ghardaqa – or a local luxury hotel. It was not clear whether Mubarak is the army's prisoner or the troops were hiding him for his own protection.