Some say he was the King of Egypt for 20 years. Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who died on 21 September, was a politician, field marshal and above all a soldier who participated in three wars against Israel. He served as longtime minister of defence – from 1991 to 2011 – under the Mubarak era. The raïs (king) was deposed on 11 February 2011 after 18 days of historic demonstrations.
The young Tantawi was born on 31 October 1935 in Cairo to Nubian parents. He entered the Egyptian Military Academy in 1952, the same year that the Free Officers, led by Mohamed Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser, overthrew King Farouk and put an end to British rule in Egypt. He graduated in 1956 and became an army officer and infantry fighter.
That same year, Nasser – after removing Naguib two years earlier – nationalised the Suez Canal in July. A few months later, the UK, France and Israel began bombing Egypt, grounding hundreds of Egyptian military aircraft. Tantawi, who was only 19 years old, took part in the fighting and even celebrated his 20th birthday during the conflict. He was also present during the military defeat of the 1967 Six-Day War against Israel and the war of attrition that took place between 1969 and 1973.
But Tantawi really stood out during the 1973 war. He led his troops in the famous “Battle of the Chinese Farm”, during which Egyptian and Israeli tanks clashed for three days. Initially victorious, the Egyptian troops suffered a fierce counter-attack from the Israeli army. However, the conflict ended with the two countries signing a peace treaty, the Camp David Accords, in 1978.