Egypt’s Next Strongman

Meet the two men most likely to succeed Egypt’s aging president: His son, Gamal Mubarak, and his spy chief, Omar Suleiman. But does either one really represent desperately needed change?

Mubarak: Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images; Suleiman: Hussein Hussein/PPO/Getty Images
Mubarak: Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images; Suleiman: Hussein Hussein/PPO/Getty Images

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak arrived in Washington today, bringing with him a large retinue of advisors, ministers, and assorted hangers-on. But only two of them really count, at least for those trying to figure out who will succeed one of the Middle East's longest-serving leaders.

The first is Mubarak's son Gamal, who is accompanying his father even though he has no formal position in the Egyptian government. (He is the assistant secretary-general of the ruling National Democratic Party, or NDP.) A more justified member of the entourage is Omar Suleiman, the head of Egypt's General Intelligence Service (GIS), known as the Mukhabarat.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak arrived in Washington today, bringing with him a large retinue of advisors, ministers, and assorted hangers-on. But only two of them really count, at least for those trying to figure out who will succeed one of the Middle East’s longest-serving leaders.

The first is Mubarak’s son Gamal, who is accompanying his father even though he has no formal position in the Egyptian government. (He is the assistant secretary-general of the ruling National Democratic Party, or NDP.) A more justified member of the entourage is Omar Suleiman, the head of Egypt’s General Intelligence Service (GIS), known as the Mukhabarat.

Each has been touted for most of the past decade as a potential heir to the 81-year-old Mubarak, who has never appointed a vice president or publicly stated his preference for a successor. Most speculation in Egypt focuses on Gamal. His rise to political prominence earlier this decade spurred opposition figures to form the "Kefaya" movement, which rallies against both Mubaraks. But many well-informed Egyptians think the next president will come from the military — and that the powerful Suleiman is the most likely candidate.

This is not a fringe sentiment. The prolonged fin de régime mood has unnerved many Egyptians, who worry that a Syrian-style inheritance-of-power scenario would usher in an era of instability. Many consider the prospect of such father-to-son nepotism humiliating for a country that has long claimed the mantle of Arab leadership. In this political environment — in which democratic alternatives are locked out, but the population wants change — Suleiman appears the only viable alternative to Gamal Mubarak. But who is this once-mysterious power player? And would he really mean a new era for Egypt?

Like the elder Mubarak, Suleiman rose to national prominence through the armed forces. The arc of his career followed the arc of Egypt’s political history. He attended the Soviet Union’s Frunze Military Academy in the 1960s — as Mubarak did a few years earlier — and became an infantryman. He then took part in the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars, likely as a staff officer. When Cairo switched its strategic alliance from Moscow to Washington, he received training at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare School and Center at Fort Bragg, N.C., in the 1980s. Suleiman continues to have privileged contacts with U.S. intelligence and military officials, with whom he has now been dealing for at least a quarter-century.

As the head of the Mukhabarat, Suleiman’s political and military portfolio is vast. The GIS combines the intelligence-gathering elements of the CIA, the counterterrorism role of the FBI, the protection duties of the Secret Service, and the high-level diplomacy of the State Department. It also includes some functions unique to authoritarian regimes, such as monitoring Egypt’s security apparatus for signs of internal coups. It is an elite institution, with a long reach inside government as well as abroad. It also crosses over the civilian and military worlds: Suleiman is one of a rare group of Egyptian officials who hold both a military rank (lieutenant general) and a civilian office (he is a cabinet minister, though he rarely attends meetings).

Traditionally, the identity of the head of the GIS is kept secret. But after 2001, when Suleiman began to take over key dossiers from the Foreign Ministry, his name and photograph began appearing in Al-Ahram, the staid government-owned daily. He even appeared on the top half of the front page, a space usually reserved for Mubarak. Since then, his high-profile assignments have garnered high-profile coverage. He has intervened in civil wars in Sudan, patched up the tiff between Saudi King Abdullah and Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi over the latter’s alleged attempt to assassinate the former, and put pressure on Syria to stop meddling in Lebanon and to dissociate itself from Iran.

Most importantly, Suleiman has mediated in the Israel-Palestine conflict, Egypt’s most pressing national security priority. Since the June 2007 Hamas takeover of Gaza, Cairo has acted as an interlocutor and mediator between Hamas and Fatah. Although its attempts to reconcile the two groups have led to few clear victories — in part, perhaps, because Egypt is clearly hostile to the Islamists — its foreign policy has won the approval of the United States and the European Union.

Hamas’ taking control of Gaza was a major setback for Suleiman, whose agents had, until that point, played an important role in the territory. His attempts at Palestinian reconciliation, which petered out by December 2008, were also unsuccessful, prompting some diplomats to wonder if his reputation was undeserved. But since last winter’s Gaza war, Suleiman has regained standing. Egypt emerged out of that conflict once again with its role confirmed as an essential mediator in the Middle East peace process. Indeed, Suleiman is now arguably the region’s most important troubleshooter — Foreign Policy recently listed him as one of the most powerful spooks in the Middle East.

It isn’t surprising, then, that he is so often described as a likely successor to Mubarak, who is showing increasingly signs of frailty. Every president of Egypt since 1952 has been a senior military officer, and the military remains, by most measures, the most powerful institution in Egypt.

Publicly, Suleiman has started to gain endorsements for the job from Egyptians across the political spectrum as the increasingly public discussion plays out of who will follow Mubarak. A leftist leader of the Kefaya movement, Abdel Halim Qandil, has urged the military to save the country from a Mubarak dynasty. The liberal intellectual Osama Ghazali Harb — a former Gamal acolyte who turned to the opposition and founded the National Democratic Front party — has openly advocated a military takeover followed by a period of "democratic transition." Hisham Kassem, head of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, also has stated that a Suleiman presidency would be vastly preferable to another Mubarak one. On Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, partisans of a Suleiman presidency make the same argument, often seemingly driven as much by animosity toward the Mubaraks as admiration for the military man.

But amendments made in 2005 and 2007 to the Egyptian Constitution’s provisions for presidential elections might have rendered Suleiman’s candidacy moot. Active-duty military officers are not allowed membership in political parties, meaning Suleiman would have to retire before running. Then, candidates must be members of their party’s highest internal body for at least one year before the election, a significant obstacle for Suleiman. Plus, it is virtually impossible for independent candidates to run; to get on the ballot, candidates must garner the support of numerous elected officials, most of whom are NDP members and presumably loyal to Gamal Mubarak. And, finally, the NDP is a powerful electoral machine, closely connected to security services at the local and national level.

In other words, most Suleiman supporters recognize that to gain the presidency he would most likely have to carry out a coup — perhaps a soft, constitutional one, but a coup nonetheless. (It is possible, one analyst told me, that "the day Mubarak dies there will be tanks on the street.") Strange though it sounds, many Egyptians would find such a coup acceptable. The amendments to the Constitution were broadly viewed as illegitimate, and the regime’s standing may be at an all-time low.

Such a coup would prove more problematic for Egypt’s foreign allies. Washington would likely be embarrassed by the rise of a new strongman, particularly after nearly a decade of fanfare around democracy promotion in Egypt. But what would the United States do about it, particularly if the plotters were pro-American and the strongman broadly supported?

Other scenarios are possible, of course. Gamal Mubarak could successfully make his bid for the presidency and keep Suleiman in place — perhaps as the power behind the throne, or simply a guarantor of the military’s corporate interests. Some previously unknown military figure could emerge as a contender. Or Hosni Mubarak could hang on to power, running again in 2011 at the ripe old age of 83. (Suleiman will be 75.)

Lost in this Egyptian Kremlinology is the fact that neither Gamal Mubarak nor Omar Suleiman presents a clear departure from the present state of affairs. Neither offers the new social contract that so many of Egypt’s 80 million citizens are demanding in strikes and protests. The prevalence of the Gamal vs. Omar debate, more than anything, highlights the low expectations ordinary Egyptians have for a democratic succession to Hosni Mubarak’s 28-year reign. Those low expectations come with their own quiet tyranny, too.

Issandr Amrani is an independent journalist and political analyst based in Cairo. He blogs at

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