Omar Suleiman has always been at the vortex of power. As Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s most trusted loyalist, he headed his country’s intelligence service and handled its most sensitive dealings with Israel and the Palestinians. His relentless pursuit of Islamic radicals in Egypt made him a natural ally of the Bush and Obama administrations.
Now a man most comfortable in the shadows finds himself operating under the lights of state television, a vice president armed with the powers of the presidency casting for some formula of words and actions that might douse the rage in the streets.
Mubarak’s decision to surrender the levers of presidential authority to Suleiman, though not the presidency itself, has placed his longtime confidant in a tricky spot. Suleiman must prove to a skeptical protest movement that he can turn Egypt away from an era of repressive government that he helped design.
But in his limited turn in the spotlight since Jan. 29, when he was appointed vice president, Egyptians have mostly been exposed to more of the 74-year-old Suleiman’s law-and-order persona.
“Go home, go back to work,” he said, addressing the protesters in the country’s streets and squares as “heroes.”
That unbending message was characteristic of a man whose career has been defined by an aversion to instability.
Suleiman attended a military academy and rose through the ranks of intelligence to become Egypt’s security chief in 1993.
Two years later he endeared himself to Mubarak when he insisted that the president travel in a bullet-resistant limousine during a visit to Ethiopia. Islamic militants fired on the motorcade, but Mubarak was unhurt.
Trusted by Mubarak and the powerful military hierarchy, Suleiman moved forcefully against radical Islamists. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, Suleiman’s experience and knowledge made him a natural ally of the Bush administration’s counter-terrorism programs.
A former senior U.S. intelligence official told The Times on Thursday that Suleiman has a “close and continuing” relationship with the CIA.
Critics say his CIA ties have implicated Suleiman in some of the murkier episodes of the last decade, including cases in which Washington shipped suspects to Egypt for interrogation under a practice known as rendition.
“When called upon by other nations to assist in intelligence operations, Suleiman’s Mukhabarat [intelligence agency] has shown itself willing to take into custody and interrogate Egyptian and non-Egyptian persons, and those interrogations have included torture,” said John Sifton, a former Human Rights Watch researcher, who specialized on rendition and detention issues involving Egypt.
“He is directly implicated [in torture], both as a member of the regime and … he headed the Mukhabarat.”
In 2009, Amnesty International asked Egyptian authorities to investigate the case of Hassan Osama Nasr, better known as Abu Omar, who was taken by the CIA from Milan in 2003 and shipped to Egypt, where he was held and allegedly tortured for 14 months. A trial in Italy found 22 CIA officials and a U.S. military officer guilty in absentia of kidnapping.
Suleiman’s direct participation in rendition has not been documented, though journalist Ron Suskind’s 2006 book, “The One Percent Doctrine,” alleged that Suleiman was involved in the case of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a Libyan captured by the U.S. and turned over to Egypt for questioning.
Under harsh treatment, Al-Libi told his interrogators that Iraq had given two Al Qaeda associates chemical and biological weapons training, a statement that he later recanted, saying it had been made under duress. The statement was used by Bush officials in making the case for invading Iraq in 2003.
Suleiman had long been mentioned as a potential successor to Mubarak. He was a particular favorite in military circles, where the other main candidate, Mubarak’s son Gamal, was widely mistrusted. Suleiman’s emergence Thursday as Mubarak’s surrogate suggests he still has the support of at least a core of military leaders.
Parlaying his new powers of office into enough support from those clamoring for change will be an enormous challenge. He has already alarmed many Egyptians in his short time as vice president with his dark warnings of a coup if the protests did not end. He also declared that Egypt was not ready for democracy and said it was too early to end its decades-long state of emergency law.
Those positions were received uncomfortably in the Obama administration, which at one point in the crisis had hoped Suleiman could be a transitional figure, able to lead Egypt from autocracy into an era of more open government.
But that option looked like wishful thinking Thursday, with Suleiman following his mentor into the glare of state TV lights and echoing Mubarak’s insistence that a reform process was underway and the protests must stop.
“I call on all honorable Egyptians concerned for the safety and stability of Egypt to be governed by reason and to look to the future,” he said.
In volatile Tahrir Square, it was uncertain whether his words were an overture, or an implied threat.
Times staff writers Ken Dilanian in Washington and Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo contributed to this report.