The death of former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman has drawn mixed reactions from Egyptians many of whom were in awe of the man they knew little about. Suleiman who was Vice President briefly in the last days of Mubarak’s rule was respected and admired by some but he was also detested and feared by others.
“He would have made a great leader at this time of chaos and instability. Egyptians need to be ruled with an iron fist. May God rest his soul,” said Manal el Mokaddem who works for Egyptian State-run Television. She added that a state funeral for Suleiman was “the fitting tribute he deserves for his long time faithful service to his country. “
Others regretted that Suleiman had died as a former Vice President without facing justice.“It’s a shame that he was let off the hook when he should have been tried for murder and for torturing thousands of Egyptians” lamented Amina Mansour, a graduate of Mass Communication at the American University in Cairo. “He should have been hung in a public square.”
Activists meanwhile launched a “No to a State Funeral for Suleiman campaign” on Twitter, expressing shock and anger at statements by Egyptian presidential spokesman Ali Yasser that Suleiman would be accorded a military funeral.
Born in Southern Egypt in 1936, Suleiman rose through military ranks to become the head of military intelligence. In the early nineties, he was named chief of Egypt’s intelligence where he oversaw sensitive relations with Israel and the United States and led mediation efforts in talks between Fatah and Hamas. During the 2011 mass uprising, Suleiman was among Mubarak’s lead advisors, orchestrating efforts to contain the political crisis.” Suleiman was running the show,” General Sameh Seif el-Yazal, former member of intelligence community told Time Magazine.
After the 2011 mass uprising that toppled Mubarak, Suleiman stepped down from the vice presidency, handing over power to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Months later, he re-emerged on the political scene announcing his candidacy in Egypt’s presidential election. He was disqualified a few weeks later by the country’s Electoral Commission for failing to get the 30,000 signatures required of a presidential candidate. Some analysts believe that Suleiman’s controversial candidacy – and his disqualification soon afterwards – was “a theatrical farce to appease a disgruntled public” after two Islamist presidential candidates were also disqualified from the race. The candidacy of the Muslim Brotherhood ‘s Khairat El Shater was rejected because of a former criminal conviction whilst that of Salafi Sheikh Hazem Abu Ismail was refused after U.S. authorities notified the Electoral Commission that Abu Ismail’s mother had an American passport—a violation of Egypt’s electoral law .
Although Suleiman had kept a low political profile until his announcement that he would contest the presidential election, he remained in the eyes of many Egyptians a symbol of Mubarak’s autocratic regime and was widely believed to have been the mastermind of a devious plot to abort the revolution in the transitional period that followed Mubarak’s ouster. A former state security official who “coincidentally” sat beside me on a flight from Paris to Cairo in October 2011 (and who introduced himself as Ahmed Abdul AlimSelim) affirmed that Suleiman was “leading the counter-revolutionary efforts including a media campaign vilifying the revolutionaries and a lapse in security that involved the use of hired thugs to wreak havoc in the country.”
I was not surprised . After all, this was Mubarak’s most trusted confidante who had presided over an “emergency” system under which arbitrary detention and torture of citizens persisted for thirty years. During that time, Suleiman waged a fierce battle against Islamists, suppressing opposition groups and brutally silencing voices of dissent. As Egypt’s point man in the so-called US “war on terror”, Suleiman oversaw the interrogation and often, torture of terror suspects sent to Egypt by the US administration in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks. It has been reported that in one case in 2002, when the US had asked Egypt for DNA material from the family of Ayman el Zawahri—the current Al Qaeda leader who was then the terror group’s deputy—Suleiman promised to cut off the arm of El Zawahri’s brother and send it to the US. While this account may be fictitious, US author Ron Suskind used it in his book “The One Percent Doctrine” as an example of the strong cooperation between Suleiman and the US in the latter’s terror rendition program.
Although several lawsuits were filed against Suleiman in the months after Mubarak was toppled, none were pursued, and unlike most other Mubarak cronies and former regime men he was neither prosecuted nor investigated.
To most Egyptians, Suleiman will remain a man of both mystery and controversy. Respected and admired by some, he also inspired loathing and fear in others. For ten years (between 2000 and 2010) I travelled on Mubarak’s presidential plane with him and cabinet ministers. Not once did I hear him speak. He would look around him silently with piercing eyes and reminded me of an eagle looking for its prey. The first time I ever heard his voice was the day he appeared on television to announce that Mubarak had finally decided to step down.
Nevertheless, his loyalty in guarding the secrets of the previous authoritarian regime has earned him the title of the “black box” – the electronic device on an aircraft that stores all instructions given during the flight to any part of the electronic system, thus helping investigators identify the cause of a crash. He has also been likened by some analysts to the Sphinx who, for thousands of years, has watched historic events unfold but has never uttered a word.
While many state secrets may be buried along with Suleiman, an analyst (who wishes to remain anonymous) suspects he may have already laid a plan to bring down Egypt’s first democratically elected President, Mohamed Morsy. He argues that it is no secret that the moderate Islamist movement has for decades, been the former regime’s most detested enemy and was often portrayed by Mubarak and his loyalists as the ‘bogeyman’. In the ongoing power struggle between the military generals and newly elected President Mohamed Morsy it is highly likely that the country’s security apparatus, which includes the ‘Mukhabarat,’ will choose to support the ex-regime generals with whom they have sided for decades, rather than side with the former foe.