The Meaning of Omar Suleiman

The presidential candidacy of Mubarak spy chief Omar Suleiman was hatched more than eight months ago, possibly with the support then of the Muslim Brotherhood.  But then the deal came undone.

omar suleiman.jpgphoto credit: Reuters

Egypt's Presidential Election Commission has deemed ten candidates unqualified for the upcoming election battle to succeed the toppled Hosni Mubarak.  They include the surprise candidate from the Muslim Brotherhood, Khairat al-Shater; the more radical Islamist Hazem Salah Abu Ismail; and Omar Suleiman, Mubarak's long time spymaster.

Egyptian citizens are massing in Tahrir Square protesting anti-democratic manipulation by the Commission as well as protesting in various pockets of the square this or that candidate on the roster -- or, as it were, not on the roster.

Of those in the current public glare, however, Omar Suleiman is the person I find most fascinating and perhaps consequential. 

First of all, last September I was told by a well connected Arab associate of mine that the military would put Suleiman up to stand for the presidency but would act as if he was separate from them.  I was also told that a secret deal had been made with the Muslim Brotherhood to 'acquiesce' to Suleiman, who despite having served for decades as a powerful head of intelligence in the previous regime was known not to be corrupt.

This was very hard to believe. 

I did not write about what I learned at the time as i could not get anyone from the Muslim Brotherhood or anyone in or close to the military to confirm this fantastical idea.

What I did was share what I learned with some at senior levels of the State Department, White House, Pentagon and CIA -- hoping for some feedback or traded information that might help confirm what I had heard about Suleiman, who had been after all a key ally and supporter of US interests for many years but particularly since 9/11.

In each case, the individual from the Obama administration or diplomatic/national security bureaucracy I spoke to simply thanked me for the information and never came back with anything.  This doesn't imply complicity; perhaps my administration contacts were as incredulous as I was that the military would put forward someone like Suleiman.  I don't know.

What I do know now is that Suleiman did not come out as a candidate at the last minute in some tactical game being played by the Commission and the Army to block and disqualify the Islamist candidates.  Gehad El-Haddad, steering committee member for the Muslim Brotherhood's Renaissance Project, has said "We have a strong understanding that Suleiman came to the scene just (so he could) be removed with Shater and Abu Ismail to afford the decision a higher level of legitimacy."

With due respect to El-Haddad, this was not the case as Suleiman's candidacy had been hatched eight months earlier -- and some of El-Haddad's brothers may have known he was coming down the pike. 

In the final days of the month of January 2012, protestors and revelers massed in Tahir to celebrate the first anniversary of the revolution and to protest the slowness of political reforms.  What was interesting during these events was that many of the regime's lead personalities -- not just the Mubaraks but many Ministers of state and security chiefs -- were targeted and lambasted in the protests as enemies of Egypt and of Islam.  The Muslim Brotherhood organized many of these protests and identified and created the Mubarak-era human targets around which to rally. 

Omar Suleiman, the long time head of intelligence who had participated in many US and European intel confabs to target, render, and occasionally torture Islamists in the wake of 9-11 and who was selected by Mubarak to be his Vice President in the wobbly moments before Mubarak fell from power, was never mentioned or protested against during these January-February 2012 rallies. 

For me, this was circumstantially supportive of the still seemingly bizarre notion that Suleiman would be put forward as a candidate for Egypt's presidency.

I don't know what undid the alleged secret deal between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Army-supported Ruling Council in Egypt, but the entry into the race of the popular Salafist Abu Ismail seems to have triggered the decision for the more 'moderate' Muslim Brotherhood to break its pledge not to enter a candidate and push forward businessman Khairat al-Shater.

Suleiman, who as I wrote some time ago was doing US bidding in both pretending to be a broker promoting reunification talks between the Palestinian Fatah and Hamas parties and yet the principal saboteur of the process, entered the race so that the Ruling Council had their option in -- though Suleiman has publicly disavowed any connection to Egypt's current rulers and the Army.

It's nearly inconceivable that the three candidates whose support comes from the strongest factions of Egyptian society will remain out of the race.  If the ruling stands, violence will likely increase -- or puppet candidates will be put forward with these strong men and their institutions behind them.

But don't count Suleiman out.  He is the phoenix who seems to keep rising out of the ashes of deals gone bad and broken regimes.

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Steve Clemons is Washington editor at large for The Atlantic and editor of Atlantic Live. He writes frequently about politics and foreign affairs. More

Clemons is a senior fellow and the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C., where he previously served as executive vice president. He writes and speaks frequently about the D.C. political scene, foreign policy, and national security issues, as well as domestic and global economic-policy challenges.

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