Omar Suleiman is running for president of Egypt -- but are voters really looking to elect a member of the former regime's inner circle?
It's déjà vu all over again: On April 6, Omar Suleiman, ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's longtime spymaster and domestic enforcer, announced that he would "bow to popular will" and throw his hat in the ring for the presidency. Suleiman's declaration caused a political earthquake in Cairo -- for the first time, a candidate seemed to hold the prospect of reversing the February 2011 revolution that overthrew Mubarak, though not necessarily his regime.
It’s déjà vu all over again: On April 6, Omar Suleiman, ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s longtime spymaster and domestic enforcer, announced that he would "bow to popular will" and throw his hat in the ring for the presidency. Suleiman’s declaration caused a political earthquake in Cairo — for the first time, a candidate seemed to hold the prospect of reversing the February 2011 revolution that overthrew Mubarak, though not necessarily his regime.
Suleiman, a career military man who was described as Mubarak’s "consigliere" in a State Department cable released by WikiLeaks, has already tried to position himself as an alternative to the resurgent Muslim Brotherhood. In an interview published April 9, he claimed to have received death threats from members of the formerly banned group, and rejected suggestions that he was a member of the ancien régime. "If I was intelligence chief and then vice president for a few days, that doesn’t mean I was part of a regime against which the people mounted a revolt," he said.
So who is Omar Suleiman? He was born into extreme poverty in the city of Qena, in Upper Egypt, and rose to prominence through the ranks of the military. According to Steven Cook’s The Struggle for Egypt, he received advanced training at Moscow’s Frunze Military Academy, and then the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare School at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. In 1993, he was appointed the head of Egypt’s General Intelligence Directorate, a hybrid agency responsible for squelching both domestic and international threats, and was Mubarak’s right-hand man until the revolution last year. In a desperate bid to assuage popular anger, Mubarak appointed Suleiman as his vice president in late January, tasking him with formulating the government’s response to the burgeoning protest movement.
With Suleiman back in the public spotlight, here is a look at the highlights of his long career.
Torture: The New Yorker‘s Jane Mayer described Suleiman as "the C.I.A.’s point man in Egypt for renditions," the program where the U.S. intelligence agency snatched terror suspects from around the world and sent them to Egypt for often brutal interrogations. In her book The Dark Side, Mayer quotes then U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Edward Walker as saying that Suleiman understood the downsides of "some of the negative things that the Egyptians engaged in, of torture and so on. But he was not squeamish, by the way."
"[Egypt’s] record both on human rights and on repressing democracy was lambasted annually by both Congress and by the State Department," wrote Stephen Grey in Ghost Plane, a book on the CIA rendition program. "But in secret, men like Omar Suleiman, the country’s most powerful spy and secret policeman, did our work, the sort of work that Western countries have no appetite to do themselves."
Keeping Hamas down: The one constant thread through Suleiman’s career is an abiding hostility toward Islamists, both domestic and foreign. For that reason, he was long one of the officials in Cairo who tried most aggressively to limit the growing power of Hamas in the neighboring Gaza Strip. In a State Department cable released by WikiLeaks, Suleiman promised an Israeli interlocutor that he would prevent the 2006 Palestinian Authority (PA) legislative election, where the Islamist group was expected to make significant gains. "There will be no elections in January," Suleiman reportedly said. "We will take care of it."
He failed to do so, however, and Hamas captured a majority in the Palestinian Legislative Council. Suleiman would later work to negotiate ceasefires between Israel and Hamas and attempt to reconcile Hamas with PA President Mahmoud Abbas, but his distrust of the organization remained unchanged. "I know these people," he said after Hamas’s electoral victory. "They are the Muslim Brotherhood and they will not change. They are liars and the only thing they understand is force."
Following Hamas’s takeover of the Gaza Strip in June 2007, Suleiman cooperated with Israel-led efforts to prevent goods from entering the area as a way of weakening the Islamist party. Suleiman "told us Egypt wants Gaza to go ‘hungry’ but not ‘starve’," reported a December 2007 WikiLeaked cable.
Mubarak’s bodyguard: Suleiman’s star began to rise in 1995 when he convinced Mubarak, despite objections from the Foreign Ministry, to take an armored limousine to an African Union summit in Ethiopia. Islamist militants ambushed the Egyptian motorcade shortly after he arrived in Ethiopia, raking the limousine with bullets, but Mubarak escaped unscathed due to Suleiman’s precautions.
Since that episode, Suleiman’s role as one of Mubarak’s most trusted confidants on security matters grew steadily. "He tells Mubarak everything that’s happening," a retired Egyptian general said. "After 22 years in power, the gerontocracy that surrounds the president tells him what they think he wants to hear. Suleiman tells Mubarak the way it is."
A direct line to Jerusalem: Shortly after Suleiman entered the race, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm released the first political salvo against him. The photo collage shows him gripping-and-grinning with some of Israel’s most prominent leaders, and features a campaign poster touting his candidacy — in Hebrew. It also didn’t help that Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, an Israeli member of the Knesset and former defense minister, endorsed Suleiman as "good for Israel."
Indeed, it’s no secret that Suleiman was long Israel’s most trusted point of contact with the Mubarak regime. An Israeli official told the Washington Post that Suleiman enjoyed a good working relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and that the two leaders shared a concern about Iran’s growing influence. Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, who was Suleiman’s counterpart in Israel for years, also predicted in November 2011 that Omar Suleiman would be Egypt’s next president.
Whenever there was a crisis involving Hamas, Suleiman stepped in to broker a solution. As part of his attempts to negotiate ceasefires in Gaza, the spymaster worked to secure the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit — though it was only after the Mubarak regime had been toppled that the two sides agreed to a prisoner swap. A 2007 WikiLeaked cable also suggests that the Egyptian leadership was pushing for more, not less, Israeli intervention in Gaza — even inviting the Israelis to re-establish their presence in the Philadelphi corridor, a nine-mile buffer zone between Gaza and Egypt. "In their moments of greatest frustration, [Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein] Tantawi and Soliman each have claimed that the IDF would be ‘welcome’ to re-invade Philadelphi, if the IDF thought that would stop the smuggling," the cable reported.
David Kenner was Middle East editor at Foreign Policy from 2013-2018.
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