Powerful Egyptian Spy Chief No Longer Behind the Scenes
When Hosni Mubarak’s car came under a hailstorm of bullets in Addis Ababa nearly 10 years ago, the Egyptian president survived the assassination attempt thanks to a little-known man named Omar Suleiman.
Intelligence chief Suleiman had persuaded Mubarak to fly his armored Mercedes from Cairo to Ethiopia rather than ride in the unarmored vehicle offered by his hosts. Suleiman was sitting next to the president when Islamist gunmen opened fire.
Among the Egyptian elite, that incident cemented the reputation of the spy chief, now 68, who has become one of the country’s most powerful figures. The fruits of Suleiman’s diplomatic efforts will be on display this week, as the heads of state of Israel, Egypt and Jordan, along with newly elected Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, gather in Egypt for a summit starting today at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik. Suleiman was credited with quietly brokering the summit in a string of meetings.
Before the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, was sparked in 2000 by an incident at the site of Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa mosque, few Egyptians knew the name of their intelligence director. His picture was never published in the media. His office, in a fortress-like compound in the middle-class Cairo district of Kobri el Kobba, has been always shrouded in mystery.
With the outbreak of the intifada, Egyptians saw for the first time the face of their spymaster, who was put in charge of the Palestinian file.
“The intelligence has long been involved in dealing with the Palestinians, but they were playing a supportive role to the Egyptian Foreign Ministry,” said Emad Gad, an Israeli affairs expert with Cairo’s Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “With the outbreak of Al Aqsa intifada, the dossier was handed quietly to Suleiman. With the satellites, intensive press coverage, and leaks, you couldn’t keep Suleiman’s role away from the spotlight.”
When Abbas, then Palestinian Authority prime minister, was struggling to form a Cabinet in March 2003, President Yasser Arafat meddled in his choices. Enmity built up until the two stopped speaking to each other. It was Suleiman who traveled to the West Bank town of Ramallah and shuttled between the two offices, eventually forcing the pair to a short-lived reconciliation.
Suleiman played a similar role when Abbas’ successor, Ahmed Korei, was forming his government. When Arafat tampered, the Egyptian spy chief intervened to bridge the difference.
Suleiman also intervened with the Israelis, prevailing upon them to refrain from attacking Arafat in retaliation for attacks inside Israel.
Even among the Palestinian factions, Suleiman played a significant role in trying to forge a cease-fire. He traveled among Ramallah, Gaza City and Cairo attempting to persuade Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders to agree to stop attacks against Israel.
Only sketchy details are known about Suleiman’s work before the intifada broke out.
“Maybe the spotlights only came recently, but Omar Suleiman has been the main person in charge of the counter-Islamism dossier abroad since the 1990s,” said Yasser Sirri, a London-based Egyptian Islamist dissident. “He doesn’t intervene in domestic politics, and left state security to handle the insurgency in Egypt. But state security knows better than stepping on Suleiman’s toes.”
Born in the Upper Egyptian province of Qena, Suleiman graduated from the military academy in 1955, one year before the Suez War with Israel, Britain and France. He was assigned as a young officer to an infantry division, and fought in three wars.
He earned a reputation for doggedness, and climbed swiftly into the higher echelons of Egypt’s military chiefs. Suleiman served in the joint command of the army and headed military intelligence before Mubarak appointed him director of the National Security Agency, Egypt’s counterpart to the CIA.
“He’s very quiet, smart and very, very, very religious,” said retired Gen. Mohammed Bilal, who commanded Egyptian troops during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. “You would like sitting down and talking with him. He listens more than he speaks.”
Besides earning a reputation as a political fixer, Suleiman mediated between the Sudanese government and opposition parties in the latest push to bring stability to Egypt’s war-torn southern neighbor.
In Egypt, Suleiman’s increasingly high-profile political role has fed rumors that he might succeed the 76-year-old Mubarak. Cairo’s elite has been discussing the succession, and whether Suleiman is competing with Gamal Mubarak, the president’s 41-year-old son.
“You can say today Omar Suleiman is the most prominent military figure with his influence and closeness to the president,” said Hisham Kassem, an Egyptian analyst.
“Still, no one can guess who will succeed Mubarak to power. But it is not going to be a civilian.”
A senior official from the ruling National Democratic Party disagreed.
“Is Omar Suleiman powerful? Yes he is. Does he have a strong say in politics? Yes,” said Mohammed Kamal, an associate of Gamal Mubarak. “But any talk about Omar Suleiman drafting domestic policy or competing for power is pure exaggeration and fiction.”
Special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah contributed to this report.