Leela Jacinto / France24
On January 29, when embattled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak named him vice president, Omar Suleiman emerged from the shadows of Egypt’s extensive security-intelligence apparatus to become a pivotal international figure. But for many analysts and followers of US-Mideast policy, Suleiman was already a familiar figure. And not all of them felt reassured by the new appointment.
Suave, sophisticated, and fluent in English, Suleiman had been the country’s spy chief since 1993, when he took over as head of Egypt’s powerful General Intelligence Service (GIS) – or “Mukhabarat” as it is commonly known in Egypt.
A Soviet-trained, former army man, Suleiman looked set to fill the “shadowy intelligence chief” mould when he took over the GIS.
But all that changed with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the US.
In 2009, US magazine Foreign Policy ranked Suleiman the Middle East's most powerful intelligence chief, ahead of Meir Dagan, the head of Israel’s Mossad.
When the whistleblower website WikiLeaks published US diplomatic cables last year, analysts learned that Suleiman had already been singled out by Egyptians as a likely Mubarak successor.
A May 14, 2007, leaked US cable reads more like prophesy than a diplomatic memo. “…in past years Soliman (sic) was often cited as likely to be named to the long-vacant vice-presidential post,” read the cable.
Suleiman in fact filled a post Mubarak vacated 30 years ago when he took over the presidency following the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat.
Just pick up the phone and talk
The Jan. 29 appointment of a new vice president was greeted with relief in some quarters, notably because it signalled that Mubarak had acknowledged the unpopularity of his son and widely rumoured successor, Gamal Mubarak.
Privately, many US officials were relieved to have a man in Cairo they could phone and “level with”.
Indeed as the situation in Egypt subsequently deteriorated, Suleiman rapidly turned into Washington’s point-man in the Egyptian administration.
On Feb. 2, as pro-Mubarak demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square waged pitched battles against anti-government protesters, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton phoned Suleiman to urge him to investigate who was behind the day’s violence and hold them accountable.
Former US Ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner, who was dispatched to Cairo by Obama to try to diffuse the crisis, also met with Suleiman during his visit.
‘Not squeamish’ about ‘torture and so on’
Negotiations between Suleiman and US ambassadors go a long way back and have historically proved fruitful.
In her book “The Dark Side,” New Yorker correspondent Jane Mayer quotes then US Ambassador to Egypt Edward Walker describing Suleiman, as “very bright, very realistic”. Walker acknowledged that the GIS head was involved in “some of the negative things that the Egyptians engaged in, of torture and so on. But he was not squeamish, by the way”.
“The Dark Side” examines the murky chapter of US renditions under the Bush administration’s “war on terror”, when the CIA snatched suspected terrorists from across the world and turned them over to authorities criticised for using extensive torture.
Egypt, a country ruled by the same man under emergency laws for decades, was an enthusiastic partner in renditions, wrote Mayer as she followed the cases of terror suspects who claimed to have been captured by the US and sent to Egypt, where they were tortured.
Torture in Egypt has been a longstanding issue that has dominated human rights reports on the world’s largest Arab nation for decades.
As the Mukhabarat chief, Suleiman was considered the “hit man” for Mubarak’s regime, wrote Ron Suskind, author of the book, “The One Percent Doctrine”.
In an interview with the United States ABC News network, Suskind sarcastically described Suleiman as “a charitable man, friendly," before going on to add: "He tortures only people that he doesn't know."
‘Liars who only understand force’
Suleiman also played a key role in the Egyptian-negotiated indirect talks between Israel and Hamas over the past two years, paying official visits to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, where he met with Israeli leaders including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres.
He has extensive experience on the Palestinian dossier, which included a failed attempt by Egypt to negotiate a Palestinian unity government between rivals Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 2008.
Familiar with Hamas and PA leaders, Suleiman also played a critical role in demolishing underground smuggling tunnels from Gaza into Egypt.
As the spy chief of the Arab world’s largest Sunni Muslim nation, Suleiman concurred with Israeli and US policies on tightening the reins on Shiite Iran.
But most appealing for the US has been Suleiman’s reputation as an ardent anti-Islamist with a visceral dislike of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s officially banned but tolerated Islamist group.
According to British daily The Guardian, Suleiman has in the past described the Brotherhood as "liars who only understand force".
In his new role of vice president, Egypt’s former spy chief will now have to negotiate with a group he has traditionally considered the country’s most serious security threat. It will not be easy for the vice president, nor for his Islamist negotiating partner.