By Hamza Hendawi / AP
CAIRO: Hosni Mubarak’s former vice president and spy chief Omar Suleiman will have the behind-the-scenes backing of Egypt’s ruling generals and the state media’s powerful propaganda machine in his bid to succeed his longtime mentor for the nation’s highest office, according to officials with firsthand knowledge.
Suleiman, 75, will set out as a formidable presidential challenger to stop the Islamists from taking over the country and may also try to sell himself as a safe pair of hands for those increasingly frustrated over tenuous security and a worsening economy.
His surprise candidacy speaks to the seismic changes Egypt has gone through since millions of people took to the streets last year united by a desire to topple Mubarak’s regime and the dream of a free, democratic and more just Egypt.
The notion of a Suleiman presidency would have been ludicrous then. But not any more.
Many Egyptians have since lost faith with the young revolutionaries who engineered Mubarak’s stunning overthrow. The euphoria over his ouster soon gave way to frustration as Egyptians struggled to cope with a surge in violent crime, the fallout from a faltering economy and seemingly endless strikes, street protests and sit-ins that disrupted their daily life.
“There is a real constituency that now yearns for law and order and stability after the tumultuous period following the fall of the Mubarak regime,” said Michael Hanna, an Egypt expert from the Century Foundation in New York. “Many among this sector will view him as a force for such stability in the face of rising chaos and economic uncertainty. But his inextricably tight connection to the former regime and some of its most repressive practices will also limit his support.”
On Friday, Suleiman reversed a decision not to run and on Sunday he presented his candidacy papers to the election commission just minutes before the deadline.
His supporters boasted that he collected more than 100,000 signatures, nearly four times the number of endorsements required for independent politicians to be able to run in the May 23-24 presidential election. The presidential vote will be the first since Mubarak’s ouster in a popular uprising 14 months ago.
The election commission later announced that 23 candidates have presented their papers, but that a final list would be announced later this week after vetting.
The names did not include Bouthaina Kamel, the only female hopeful who announced on Sunday that she was not able to collect the required minimum of 30,000 signatures.
“I can say with certainty that the (ruling) military council pushed Omar Suleiman to run,” declared moderate Islamist candidate Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh. “I can’t imagine the Egyptian people will elect a figure from the old regime.”
A career army officer, Suleiman served as Mubarak’s intelligence chief for 18 years. Mubarak named him vice president days before an 18-day uprising forced him to step down and he has since disappeared from the public eye.
In the meantime, two dominant forces emerged from the revolution — the ruling military and the Islamists.
Many looked to Islamists, who dominated in parliamentary elections several months ago, for actions that would ease their woes. When that did not happen, they began to look to the next president.
Suleiman’s candidacy could provide the revolutionaries with the spark to reconnect with the streets as they did during the revolution, using it as evidence to support their claim that the ruling generals were an extension of the Mubarak regime and a Suleiman presidency would amount to turning the clock back on the 2011 revolution.
“Omar Suleiman is in fact Mubarak No. 2,” said Khaled Ali, a presidential candidate representing liberal and leftist groups.
Suleiman is not the only Mubarak-era figure running for president. The ousted leader’s last prime minister and fellow air force officer Ahmed Shafiq is one, and so is Amr Moussa, who was Mubarak’s foreign minister for 10 years. The two are front-runners along with Abolfotoh and ultraconservative lawyer Hazem Abu Ismail.
In Suleiman, the ruling generals will have a sympathetic military man happy to shield them from any attempt to prosecute them for alleged crimes during their rule, protect them from civilian oversight and keep their vast economic empire away from the tax collectors.
“He is the candidate of the ruling military council without a doubt,” said one official with firsthand knowledge who spoke on conditional of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Already, the state media, which have sided with the ruling military council against the pro-democracy groups calling for it to step down, is promoting Suleiman, presenting him as the politician with the expertise needed to spare Egypt more upheavals.
Faced with the prospect of a Suleiman presidency, the Muslim Brotherhood as the dominant Islamist party in parliament is trying to project itself again as a revolutionary force. The Brotherhood said Suleiman’s entry into the race was a throwback to the days of Mubarak, who cracked down on the group for most of his 29 years in office. The Brotherhood’s official website posted on Sunday a picture of Suleiman crossed out in red with the word “no” over it.
Mahmoud Ghozlan, the spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, said if the elections are free and fair, Suleiman is bound to lose.
“The Egyptian people hate him, they know his scandals and his animosity to the public,” Ghozlan said. “He will either take a big fall or he will re-ignite the revolution again.”
The Brotherhood won just under half of the seats in parliament. Combined with the ultraconservative Salafis, the two Islamist groups control 70 percent of the chamber. The two joined forces again to ensure that Islamists are the majority on a 100-member panel tasked to draft the country’s next constitution.
In the eyes of some critics, the Islamists’ political gains have only made them hungrier for power, a charge that earned credence when the Brotherhood fielded a candidate in the presidential race, reversing an earlier decision not to do so.
Like his mentor Mubarak, Suleiman was a keen adversary of the Brotherhood. But he also ended a ban of nearly six decades on the long outlawed group and opened a dialogue with them during the uprising.
His candidacy could appeal to the significant sector of moderate Egyptians who fear that an Islamist from the Brotherhood or the Salafis would turn Egypt into an Iranian-style theocracy.
“People are frightened,” said Negad Borai, a rights lawyer and activist. “Suleiman cashes in on this fear and becomes the candidate suitable for everyone.”