Tales of Omar Suleiman
Egypt's feared domestic enforcer is dead, but not the regime he left behind.
"I am responsible for the stability of Egypt," Lt. Gen. Omar Suleiman said, his voice rising as his large fist slammed on the table to accentuate the point. That was my first experience with Suleiman, then President Hosni Mubarak’s spy chief and all-seeing eye of Horus. It was the spring of 2005, and I was seated around a conference table in downtown Washington with a group of people far more senior than I. The conversation over stale bagels and bad coffee that morning dealt mostly with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The fist-on-table incident came at the end of the hour, when someone brought up the possibility of democratic change in Egypt — almost as an afterthought.
On July 19, Suleiman died of a heart attack while undergoing medical tests in a Cleveland hospital. He had been suffering from amyloidosis, a chronic disease related to abnormal protein deposits in tissue that affects the heart and liver, and his sudden passing came as a shock to his enemies and admirers alike.
Suleiman’s dismissal of reform was just as startling. It wasn’t just the sound of his ample fist hitting the faux oak, but because his rejection of the idea was so straightforward. Even early in the days of President George W. Bush’s "Freedom Agenda," Egyptian officials had become adept at bobbing and weaving their way through conversations about political change. It was a game in which they refused to say yes or no. But Suleiman — the man closest to the apex of power in Egypt save members of the Mubarak family itself — was having none of it.
The perspective of Omar Pasha, an honorific title dating back to Egypt’s Ottoman period, was perfectly consistent with everything that I had read (not much), or heard (mostly rumor), and subsequently learned about the man. He — like the president he served — emphatically believed that he understood Egypt better than anyone. This conviction, which all too often was expressed through manipulation, coercion, and the use of violence, was to be his political undoing.
Suleiman and I were hardly friends, and I certainly didn’t know him personally, but he graciously accepted my requests for meetings. Between the spring of 2005 and Jan. 24, 2011 — the eve of the revolution, and the last time I saw him — I met Suleiman four times: twice in one-on-one interviews, once with another colleague, and once more in a group setting. Through Egyptian friends of friends and Americans who knew him, Suleiman graciously accepted my requests for off-the-record interviews. This took a certain amount of ingratiation, though I never let it compromise my moral compass.
I can’t tell anyone where exactly the General Intelligence Service, Egypt’s foreign and domestic intelligence organ that was the seat of Suleiman’s power, is located other than it is in the posh Cairo suburb of Heliopolis. Unlike in the movies where visitors are hooded before entering a secret or sensitive location, I guess the Egyptians just thought they would confuse me before my first private audience with Omar Pasha. It worked: I was driven around for 30 minutes, doubling back and forth, going in circles, and speeding through unfamiliar neighborhoods until I completely lost my bearings. When the car finally passed through massive steel gates, I was in a pristine compound with grass and trees. There were other buildings, but not a soul to be seen.
I was driven up to the first building and told to wait in the car. Eventually, two men in uniforms that I had never seen before met me and motioned to follow them into the building, where I was handed off to another uniformed officer who brought me up a few floors in a carpeted elevator, where I was then met by an affable man in a very nice navy blue suit. He took me to a large waiting room with bright lights, gaudy furniture, and large murals of Egypt’s military triumphs from antiquity to the crossing of the Suez Canal in October 1973. After what seemed like forever, the same man in the blue suit escorted me to what can only be described as a fairly understated, American-style living room with bookshelves, a couch, a large easy chair, and two arm chairs at the end of a coffee table. I was asked to sit at the end of the couch closest to the easy chair. Omar Pasha entered a few seconds later with two note takers in tow, and said in a deep voice, "Good morning."
Our conversation focused almost exclusively on foreign relations. He was deeply hostile to America’s enemies in the Middle East, complaining bitterly that every time he thought he had a deal between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, the Syrians and Iranians would scuttle it. He also offered his view that the United States, Egypt, and other friendly countries in the region should work together to keep "Iran busy with itself." His implication was clear — Egyptian intelligence, the CIA, Mossad, Saudi intelligence and others should engage in clandestine operations to destabilize the clerical regime in Tehran.
Suleiman’s hawkish language was part and parcel of a larger shift in Egyptian rhetoric in the late Mubarak era. In those years, the Egyptians were always looking for ways to make themselves useful to Washington besides tangling with Hamas, participating in renditions of terrorist suspects, and being the occasional caterer for talks between Israelis and Palestinians. Omar Pasha did not take my bait to discuss domestic Egyptian politics, and when my 60 minutes were up, he excused himself and left with his note takers. The man in the blue suit then returned me to the elevator and everything played out in reverse.
The drill was exactly the same on my subsequent visits, during which Suleiman invariably steered the conversation to foreign affairs. He was expansive on the various challenges on the Palestinian front — President Mahmoud Abbas’s weakness and Hamas’s connection to what he later infamously called the "Brothers Muslimhood." For all the lore about his close ties with the Israelis, he harangued me in one meeting that the Israelis were whipping up anti-Egyptian sentiment in Congress with videos of smuggling across the Gaza border. He also resented Turkish efforts to mediate between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, complaining that the Turks didn’t understand Hamas. That may well be true, but Suleiman was also clearly annoyed that Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was encroaching on Egyptian turf.
The last time I saw Omar Pasha was on Jan. 24, 2011 — on the eve of the Egyptian revolution. I was with a group of foreign-policy experts, business leaders, and philanthropists and we met in an auditorium at the GIS headquarters. It was hard not to notice the freaky, yoga studio-like music that was playing over the sound system. When Suleiman arrived, he sat alone on a dais and spoke into a microphone, even though the delegation numbered only about 25 people seated in the second row of the auditorium, behind a gaggle of GIS courtiers. During the meeting, we learned that the United States had supplied Egypt with the technology to turn off the Internet — something the Egyptians would employ in earnest, though not terribly effectively, less than 24 hours later.
By Jan. 24, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had already fallen and a wave of self-immolations in Egypt had led to widespread speculation about whether the revolution was headed east. Naturally, therefore, someone in our delegation asked Suleiman whether the Tunisian revolt could happen in his country. But even at this late hour, he was as contemptuous of change as he had been six years ago, when he slammed his first down on the Washington conference table. "No," he responded. "The police have a strategy and the president is strong." Even at the time, the hubris was astonishing.
A little more than two weeks later, it was an ashen-faced Suleiman who brought the Mubarak era to a formal end in a short televised address. "Citizens, in these difficult circumstances the country is going through, President Mohamed Hosni Mubarak has decided to leave his position as president of the republic, and has entrusted the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to administer the nation’s affairs," he said.
Some of my Egyptian friends still have a hard time processing the fact that Suleiman was unable to quell the Egyptian uprising. To them, this was a man who — despite being shrouded in secrecy — loomed impossibly large. Wasn’t he was a master manipulator, a man to be feared? After all, he had kept the Muslim Brotherhood down, brutalized the regime’s other opponents, served as the trusted interlocutor of Americans and Israelis alike, and was on the short list of Hosni Mubarak’s possible successors. For some Egyptians, it is hard to make sense of the fact that Suleiman turned out to be more Wizard of Oz than Dark Lord of the Sith.
Omar Pasha’s failure to put a stop the uprising was a direct result of his arrogant conceit that people power could never threaten the regime. His bellicose conviction that he alone could work Egypt’s levers of power was ultimately misplaced: In the end, he misunderstood his own people, who ultimately refused to submit to the brutal methods that Suleiman had worked to perfect.
I cannot say that I will miss Omar Pasha, but in an important way I am glad to have met him. By granting me an audience, by being unfailingly polite, by answering my questions, he gave me some insight into how he thought — and thus how the regime thought and justified its actions. I know he believed his endless attempts at manipulation and coercion were acts of patriotism, but that is hard to justify given his complicity in the Mubarak regime’s sundry crimes and abuses.
Suleiman’s death has provoked a sense of satisfaction — even glee — among some of the Mubarak regime’s opponents. That is understandable, but the happiness is misplaced. He was just the product of a system that has yet to be overturned. Whatever energy is expended celebrating his death is wasted at the expense of building a new political order.