On Omar Suleiman

Jonathan Wright writes:

New Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman spoke in public at length for the first time ever today, in an interview with Nile Television. That gives us more insight into his thinking than we have ever had before and the impression is hardly reassuring. Judging by what we heard, this was a replica of what the Tunisians (and the French) would call 'langue de bois' (literally, wooden tongue). The key message came right at the end -- to the effect that he thanks the young people of Egypt for initiating a process of reform but now it's time for them to stand down and trust the details to the professionals.

I agree — and was shocked to hear Suleiman repeat the propaganda on state TV by mentioning "foreign hands" as being responsible for unrest and insecurity.  

By the way, I am told by the editors of Foreign Policy that my 2009 piece about Omar Suleiman is getting a lot of hits and that a lot of journalists are cribbing from it.

Well that itself was partly based on a profile I filed for Oxford Analytica in early 2006, which I am reproducing below. Obviously some of the analysis has changed since then. Suleiman today is less respected both domestically and internationally (his policy towards Gaza is unpopular and a failure at achieving its stated objectives, every day he sticks by Mubarak makes him more unpopular, etc.)

SUBJECT: A profile of Omar Suleiman, Director of Egypt’s General Intelligence and Security Service (GISS, in Arabic Mukhabarat Al ‘Amma).

SIGNIFICANCE: Suleiman, a career intelligence officer, is the second most powerful man in Egypt after President Hosni Mubarak and has been rumored as a potential successor. Since 2001, he has taken on an increasingly public profile as Egypt’s key foreign policy troubleshooter, most notably in negotiating a ceasefire between Israel and secular and Islamist Palestinian factions. In addition to handling sensitive dossiers such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Syria, he also has excellent relations with US officials. 

ANALYSIS: There is very little publicly available information on Suleiman. He only began making public statements in the last two years and has never given an on-the-record interview to any journalists. Nonetheless, because of his position and recently heightened profile, he has emerged as a key figure in the post-Oslo Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Milestones:

  • Born in 1935 in the Upper Egyptian city of Qena.
  • In 1954 Suleiman enrolls in the prestigious Military Academy. He is later trained in the Soviet Union, at Moscow’s Frunze Military Academy. He also obtains bachelor’s degree in law and master’s degree in political science from, respectively, Ain Shams and Cairo universities. He purses a career in infantry and participates in the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars.
  • Transferred in the mid-1980s from the army to military intelligence. There he begins encounters with US officials. Receives training at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare School at Fort Bragg. Becomes director of military intelligence, cooperates closely with US during 1991 Gulf War.
  • Appointed in late 1992 or 1993 as head of the GISS, the Egyptian equivalent of the CIA. 
  • On 21 June 1995, he insists that Mubarak bring an armored vehicle when visiting Addis Ababa for a summit of the Organization of African Unity. When Mubarak arrives in Addis Ababa the next day, his convoy is attacked at close range by gunmen from the Egyptian group Gamaa Islamiya (Islamic Group). Suleiman, who sat next to Mubarak in the vehicle, is credited with saving his life.
  • In mid-1997, Suleiman urges a drastic security build-up at tourist sites in Egypt, believing that an attack is being planned. Then Minister of Interior Hassan Al Alfi plays down the threat. On 17 November 1997, gunmen from an offshoot of Gamaa Islamiya kill 62 people, mostly tourists, in Luxor. Al Alfi is sacked.
  • First emerges in the Arab media in June 2000 during the funeral of Syrian President Hafez Al Assad. In November 2001, the leading state-owned Egyptian daily Al Ahram published his picture on its front page for the first time. Rumors quickly spread that Suleiman is the leading candidate to succeed Mubarak.

Technically speaking, Suleiman’s position as director of GISS makes him responsible for collecting intelligence on national security issues and coordinating other intelligence services. However, the trust Mubarak put in him since the 1995 have made him an unusually powerful director of GISS. Suleiman is said to be in daily contact with Mubarak and has seen his portfolio expand at the expense of other senior Egyptian officials. 

Suleiman has the reputation of having a military bearing, being quiet-spoken, highly intelligent and direct to the point of being blunt. He is highly respected among the Egyptian military, civilian officials, the foreign diplomatic community and US officials in particular. Although his public profile was low until recently, he is also generally respected by the wider Egyptian public, not least because GISS is one of the few security agencies that is associated with the more glamorous aspects of national security rather than domestic repression.

Although he is reputed to be a pious Muslim, Suleiman like Mubarak is convinced that Islamists should not be able to form a political party. He played a leading role in domestic counter-terrorism in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but is known to dislike some of the more heavy-handed methods that  State Security (Amn Al Dowla), which deals with the day-to-day handling of Islamist groups, is known to favor—most notably routine use of torture. This has earned him some respect of mainstream Islamists.

Although he does get involved in domestic issues, in recent years Suleiman’s top priority has been on foreign policy:

  • He is the most senior and influential official dealing with Egypt-US relations. Suleiman is thought to have a strong grasp of American political culture and institutions.
  • He is arguably the single most important individual dealing with Palestinian groups. Suleiman is credited for having secured a ceasefire among Palestinian factions and pushed the Palestinian Authority to reform and to have forced Yasser Arafat to begin overhauling internal security services. He has been instrumental in the rise of Mohammed Dahlan, currently the top PA official in charge of the Gaza-Egypt border and a favorite of Israeli, US and Egyptian intelligence services. Some Palestinian analysts believe Suleiman is the most powerful person in the Occupied Territories and able to dictate policy to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. 
  • Suleiman is now the key Egyptian foreign policymaker on regional matters. He and the GISS have essentially taken over this role from the Foreign Ministry, which is seen by Mubarak as too ideological and lacking in pragmatism to handle the Palestinian question.
  • He has a good working relationship with Israeli officials and Ariel Sharon in particular. It was Suleiman who convinced the Israelis to make changes to the Camp David accords to allow 750 Egyptian troops to patrol the Gaza border. 
  • Suleiman is thought to be the one of the few, if not the only, Mubarak lieutenants with the authority to negotiate independently. As such, he has been used to handle sensitive regional matters, such as attempting to reconciliate Saudi King Abdullah and Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi after the latter allegedly tried to assassinate Abdullah, or delivering a US ultimatum to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad in September 2005 as part of a Egyptian-Saudi brokered deal. Suleiman also played a role, along with Libya and the US, in bringing an end to Sudan’s civil war and urging Khartoum to restrain its activities in Darfur.

Because of his unusual prominence, Suleiman is now considered a leading candidate to succeed Mubarak as president. In this he would probably be supported by most other senior officers, although there could be rivals within the military establishment, such as Minister of Defense Hussein Tantawi, who holds the higher rank of Field Marshal.

He is often pitted as a rival to Mubarak’s son Gamal, another potential successor who is widely disliked in the military because he is a civilian and because most high-ranking officers are against hereditary succession of the presidency. While some analysts believe a Gamal presidency is impossible without the backing of the army, it is not clear that officers would actually oppose it if Gamal is able to guarantee their interests. Recent changes to the Egyptian constitution allowing for a multi-candidate presidential election favor Gamal, the strongman of the ruling National Democratic Party and on a superficial level a more “democratic” choice than another general. 

Suleiman has also recently received treatment for cancer and at 70 would be seen as a transitional president. The likelihood of a Suleiman presidency is very much tied to his continuing usefulness in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and other regional crises. Nor can a Gamal-Suleiman partnership of some sort can be ruled out in light of expected constitutional changes in Egypt in the next few years.

CONCLUSION: Suleiman will remain Hosni Mubarak’s top foreign policy aide for the foreseeable future and a crucial player in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. It is however too early to determine his prospects as a successor to Mubarak because of Egypt’s ongoing and unpredictable political reform process.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.