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Egypt's departed strongman: The legacy of Omar Suleiman

The enigmatic Omar Suleiman has gone to meet his final rewards, but Egypt's long-serving intelligence czar looks set to remain the source of controversy for some time to come

Dina Ezzat, Sunday 22 Jul 2012
Omar Suleiman in his days as spy chief and former Israeli Prime Minister Tzipi Livni. (Photo: Internet)
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Views: 3415

"He didn't leave what you would traditionally call memoires, but he has a huge volume of notes in his own handwriting," said a former aide to the late Omar Suleiman, ousted president Hosni Mubarak's long-serving right hand.

Suleiman had headed up Egypt's military intelligence and national intelligence apparatuses, and served as Mubarak's vice president during last year's 18-day Tahrir Square uprising.

Suleiman's notes and documents, his aide said, are without parallel, since they contain the personal impressions of the man who held the keys to the nation's top secrets during Mubarak's three-decade rule. The one conclusion that might be drawn from Suleiman's notes were they ever to be made available to the public, the aide said, is that "the General was so patriotic and so committed to serving his country."

That said, sources close to Suleiman's family said that neither Suleiman's widow nor any of his three daughters had given any sign that they might publish the late intelligence czar's papers.

On Thursday, Suleiman passed away at the age of 76, having succumbed to a rare disease at a US hospital. On Saturday, his body arrived to Cairo on a private jet belonging to a prominent Egyptian businessman.

Suleiman, who failed to enter Egypt's recent presidential race due to administrative reasons, was given a military funeral that was attended by the head of Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, a host of state dignitaries and Arab diplomats.

Despite his intimacy with the former regime, Suleiman enjoyed a degree of popular support.  

"His death is a great loss. This man could have helped Egypt get back on its feet," said Shaaban, an air-conditioner technician. "I wish he had run for president; I would have voted for him."

The 25-year-old technician believes Egypt needs a strong leader at the current critical juncture of its history. "And Suleiman was certainly a strong man."

A number of diplomats who worked with Suleiman, both Egyptian and foreign, expressed similar views.

"You could say so many things in his favour or against him," said one Cairo-based Western diplomat. "You could say he was not as intelligent as one might have expected of the head of Egyptian intelligence; maybe not as creative as you would have expected. You could say he was too traditional, and at times too arrogant, but he was, without doubt, a strong man."

This and other diplomats who had attended meetings with Suleiman, either in Mubarak's presence or at Suleiman'soffice in eastern Cairo, have endless anecdotes about Suleiman's ability to make thingshappen.

"If he promised something, it would happen," said one Arab diplomat. "He would never come back to you and say, 'The president disagrees'."

Anecdotes about his celebrated strength, however, are not always cast in a positive light.

According to Palestinian resistance movement Hamas, which heads up the government in the neighbouring Gaza Strip, Suleiman's "strength" often translated into the arrest and torture of its members.

"He ordered the arrest and torture of Hamas members – and other Islamist activists – in Egypt," said one Gaza-based Hamas source. "And he stepped up these activities in the final years of Mubarak s rule."

Suleiman's heavy-handedness vis-à-vis Islamist movements goes beyond the harsh treatment meted out to Hamas.

Suleiman, his critics argue, was also involved in providing US intelligence with sensitive information on the movements and operations of Lebanese resistance faction Hezbollah during Israel's 2006 war on Lebanon aimed at crushing the Shiite resistance movement. His critics also refer to difficult-to-verify stories about his alleged cooperation with Western and regional governments aimed at liquidating Islamist operatives both inside and outside Egyptian territory.

It's no secret that Mubarak's closest confidante had little love for Islamists, going so far as to accuse them of trying to kill him days after he was sworn in as Mubarak's vice president in early 2011.

"He did this even though he knew for sure that the attempt on his life had been ordered by one of his opponents in the Mubarak regime who saw his appointment as vice president as a final blow against the succession of Gamal Mubarak," said one Muslim Brotherhood source who preferred anonymity, referring to the ousted president's younger son, who many believed was being groomed to succeed his aging father.

The source added: "Suleimanknew very well that it was a foreign militant – who entered the country two days after the revolution – who carried out the assassination attempt on behalf of the succession camp, but Suleimanchose to blame us instead."

Suleiman was perceived by many within the Mubarak regime as an opponent – albeit a "soft" one – of the inheritance of the presidency by Gamal Mubarak.

"He clearly kept the president informed of the wide public opposition to the inheritance plan," said one retired official that had worked in the presidential office. "And he did so even though he knew that Mubarak disliked hearing anything negative about his sons."

Not everyone, however, agrees with this perception. Nasser Amin, director of the Cairo-based Arab Human Rights Network, for his part, says that Suleimancannot be qualified as an opponent of the Gamal Mubarak succession scenario.

"He shared intelligence reports with the president, but that doesn't make him an opponent of the inheritance scenario," said Amin. "On the contrary, Suleimanmade a huge mistake when he allowed Egypt's intelligence apparatus to serve the narrow political interests of the Mubarak family."

As of late 2003, Amid added, "Suleimanmade the intelligence apparatus a parallel body to the State Security Service, at which point it became involved in spying on the foes of the entire Mubarak family – not just those of the president himself."

According to Amin, Suleimanhad been "well aware of all the accounts of corruption that have since been uncovered since Mubarak's ouster, yet he turned a blind eye to it; this makes him guilty by association."

Amin further argues that – unlike Egypt's military council, which did not side with Mubarak against the 25 January Revolution – "Suleimanremained on Mubarak's side to the end."

"These accounts that are now being offered for public consumption about Suleiman'srole in convincing Mubarak to step down aren't true at all," Amin said. "Mubarak wouldn't have stepped down had it not been for the stance that the military took when it decided it would not put down the uprising for him."

But according to Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of Coptic newspaper Al-Watan, Suleiman'slegacy goes beyond his undisputed loyalty to Mubarak.

Sidhom credits Suleimanwith a "firm dedication to serve the nation's interests against several attempts at foreign intervention – both direct and indirect." Sidhom is convinced that Suleiman"played a major role" in keeping Egypt's border with Israel quiet despite the operations of Hamas.

Sidhom further credits Suleimanwith keeping an eye on matters related to the rights of Egypt's Coptic-Christian community in the face of radical groups. "He opened channels to hear [Coptic] grievances," said Sidhom. "I know he put the message across; he should not be blamed for Mubarak's failure to respond."

Suleimanrarely if ever communicated with the Egyptian press, although he at times communicated with the Israeli and – to a lesser degree – the US media.

"I'm head of intelligence. My job isn't to talk to the press," Suleimanonce told this writer. "When I talk to the Israeli press, it's because I have a particular message I want to deliver."

Those who worked under Suleimanwithin Egypt's intelligence apparatus – along with the Egyptian diplomats who worked for him by proxy, since he was in charge of several key foreign policy files during the last decade of Mubarak s rule – stress that the late intel chief was never rude or unpleasant.

"On the contrary, he had a good sense of humour and liked to hear jokes," said one Egyptian diplomat. "But this didn't detract from his otherwise very serious posture."

Another diplomat said: "There were many sides to Omar Suleiman.You could judge him by the side that you saw, and I don’t think many people saw more than one side – this depended on which side he wanted you to see."

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