The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged suleiman
Egypt presidentials: Suleiman in, Abu Ismail out?

Egypt's presidential election will be on May 23rd and already things are out of control. Not only did deputy head of the Muslim Brotherhood Khairat El Shater suddenly enter the race this week -- reversing a pledge on the group's part that they wouldn't field a member, creating a fair amount of internal disagreement and showing his hand as the group's real boss...

But creepy Mubarak spy-master Omar Suleiman has also apparently just announced he will join the race! Suleiman was appointed Mubarak's vice-president and heir apparent during the uprising and you can see him here, sulkily announcing his boss' (and his own) resignation. Suleiman as Egypt's next president would really be ten times worse than a slap in the face to the revolution (it'd be more like a foot endlessly stomping on the face of the revolution...) That said, I'm surprised by news stories calling him a "front-runner." in a recent Al Ahram poll, he had 10% of the vote. While he can count on the police and intelligence communities, reactionaries and morons in search of "an iron fist," I think a majority of the country would never vote for him. They'd have to rig it to get him in. 

Finallly, I was at a rally in Tahrir Square this afternoon by supporters and sympathizers of presidential hopeful Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, who is embroiled in a weird scandal over whether his mother might have become a US citizen in the last years of her life (thus barring him from running according to a recently expanded xenophobic law). Abu Ismail is a charismatic Salafist with the usual ultra-conservative social and religious views, a vague populist platform and an anti-authoritarian streak (he supported the revolution from the start and has been very critical of the military leadership).

Abu Ismail likes to score points by criticizing the West, so there's been quite a bit of schadenfreude in liberal circles over his embarrassing American connections. Then again, I met some at the rally who said they came out because they think Abu Ismail's disqualification would be just the first step in rigging the election. Not that any of this has seemingly led the public in Egypt to question the stupid law banning presidential candidates' parents and grandparents from holding foreign nationalities, or the way any foreign connection continues to be used as a political smear. In fact, Abu Ismail's supporters believe he is being set up by the SCAF, the Americans and Israel, of course. It's true that he is probably all three's least favourite candidate. 

Abu Ismail supporters were sporting all sorts of pins, posters, T-shirts etc. But the weirdest thing had to be the very popular Abu Ismail masks. 

How to restrain Suleiman's power

With Hillary Clinton's backing for Suleiman as the lead on a transition in Egypt, we are quickly heading towards the formation of another strongman regime that cannot be trusted to deliver on the changes needed in the political environment. There needs to be a mechanism to integrate the opposition into the heart of the state to grant full legitimacy to its demand, and reduce the perception (and reality) of Omar Suleiman being the sole man at the helm. I'm no constitutional scholar, so please consider this as a brainstorm more than a serious proposal.

Under the Egyptian constitution, the president can delegate his powers by decree to the vice-president. This is what Mubarak did to grant Suleiman the authority to negotiate with the protestors. But the Egyptian constitution also allows for more than one vice-president, according to its Article 139:

Art.139:   The President of the Republic may appoint one or more Vice-Presidents define their jurisdiction and relieve them of their posts. The rules relating to the calling to account of the President of the Republic shall be applicable to the Vice-Presidents.

It would be wise at this point to curtail Suleiman's power by handing out different functions to different vice-presidents as Mubarak withdraws from any lead role in handling the crisis. Some of what multiple vice-presidents could do:

  1. A vice-president to handle to act as a constitutional ombudsman, focusing on the enforcement of the rule of law and guiding the constitutional reform process. Could be someone like Tareq al-Bishri or Yehia al-Gammal.
  2. A vice-president to oversee and investigate the Ministry of Interior. Fully delegated to have the Minister of Interior answer to him, charged with preserving MoI documents, restoring the police's presence, the dismantlement of the Popular Committees, and investigating the security vacuum. A prominent judge would be appropriate here.
  3. A vice-president for media and communications. This person would look at preventing any further tampering with communications by the authorities, and oversee state media to ensure equal access and the end of the propaganda and incitement of the last week. He would appoint a new Minister of Information to replace Anas al-Fiqi, who is chiefly responsible for the sad spectacle of state propaganda over the last week. Ideally, this should be a person known for media professionalism and neutrality: Salama Ahmed Salama, Hisham Kassem, etc.
  4. A vice-president that would oversee the relaunch of the economy, with economic ministers and the head of financial institutions such as the Central Bank and the Financial Services Authority directly answering to him — a kind of economic war room. Ideally, a prominent economist or even the respected head of the Central Bank, Farouk al-Ogda.

Omar Suleiman would remain as the vice-president representing the ancien regime and taking the lead with the negotiations with the (hopefully more united than it currently is) opposition. Personally, I think such a bargain would make it worth it to postpone the demand that Mubarak step down immediately.


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.


  • 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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NYT: Obama still pushing for Mubarak to go

Important story in the Times: White House, Egypt Discuss Plan for Mubarak’s Exit

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is discussing with Egyptian officials a proposal for President Hosni Mubarak to resign immediately and turn over power to a transitional government headed by Vice President Omar Suleiman with the support of the Egyptian military, administration officials and Arab diplomats said Thursday.

Even though Mr. Mubarak has balked, so far, at leaving now, officials from both governments are continuing talks about a plan in which Mr. Suleiman, backed by Lt. Gen. Sami Enan, chief of the Egyptian armed forces, and Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, the defense minister, would immediately begin a process of constitutional reform.

The proposal also calls for the transitional government to invite members from a broad range of opposition groups, including the banned Muslim Brotherhood, to begin work to open up the country’s electoral system in an effort to bring about free and fair elections in September, the officials said.

 They even have a response from an Egyptian official:

“What they’re asking cannot be done,” one senior Egyptian official said, citing clauses in the Egyptian Constitution that bar the vice president from assuming power. Under the Constitution, the speaker of Parliament would succeed the president. “That’s my technical answer,” the official added. “My political answer is they should mind their own business.”

A lot of people inside and outside Egypt must be wondering: why are these senior officials backing Hosni Mubarak to the hilt? Some of it may be personal loyalty, for sure. But for this generation and caste of army officers, there are bigger issues at stake too:

  • A fear of constitutional chaos (expressed by the official above) or unconstitutionality that would pry open the door for a complete reworking of the constitution (i.e. a constitutional assembly drafting a new document) that would fundamentally change the balance of power of the Egyptian state.
  • If they were to get rid of Mubarak and Suleiman immediately assumed a transitional presidency, his position would be constitutionally dicey and he would be subject to attacks on a legal basis, undermining his legitimacy.
  • Fear of giving in, by principle, to the protestors on the question of the head of state, which from their point of view would set a bad precedent.
  • Resistance to this level of foreign meddling.

I suspect that if the NYT story is true — it could be the paper is being misled by the administration — then a formula will be found for Mubarak to step down. But Suleiman will be asking for a lot of guarantees to support him in exchange.