Why Is Mubarak's Vice President Running for Egypt's Presidency?

Rating three theories for Omar Suleiman's odd candidacy.

mubarakVP april13 p.jpg

A supporter of Egypt's former vice president Omar Suleiman uses a mobile phone near images of him during a gathering in Cairo. Reuters

It is fair to say that Omar Suleiman's bid to be Egypt's next president is one of the most unexpected developments in post-Mubarak Egypt.  The last time anyone had seen or heard from Suleiman, he appeared on Egyptian television and declared:

Citizens, in these difficult circumstances the country is going through, the President Mohamed Hosni Mubarak has decided to leave his position as president of the Republic, and has entrusted the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to administer the nation's affairs.

With those 41 words, Hosni Mubarak's almost three-decade rule came to an ignominious end.  Since then Omar Pasha has been a ghost.  In the giddy moments and considerable confusion after Mubarak's flight to Sharm el Sheikh, there was an assumption that the intelligence chief and two-week vice president would be taking a seat on the SCAF.  It didn't happen.  He surfaced ever so briefly during Hosni Mubarak's trial.  In a pretrial investigation Suleiman reportedly told prosecutors that the former president "knew of every shot fired" during the uprising.  So much for loyalty.  In between and since, Suleiman was apparently holed up in his home in Heliopolis. There were rumors in the late fall/early winter of 2011 that he was back at work at the headquarters of the General Intelligence Service, supporting his successor Major General Mourad Muwafie on the Israel-Palestinian file.  This was perhaps wishful thinking among the felool--a sign that despite their electoral drubbing, a restoration was possible.

As of Sunday with the spectacle of Suleiman delivering his presidential candidate registration papers (with more than three times the 30,000 required signatures appended to his petition) to the High Election Commission, the restoration seemed not just possible, but maybe even imminent.  Suleiman's decision to contest the presidency was a dramatic twist in a drama filled week in which the Muslim Brotherhood's number two and widely regarded to be the most powerful man in post-Mubarak Egypt--Khairat al Shater--announced his own run for the presidency and it was revealed that Salafist presidential candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail's mother held an American passport.  Yet Omar Suleiman's emergence eclipsed all others.  Immediately, the conjectures, rumors, and theories attempting to make sense of al Shater's candidacy gave way to intense speculation about who and what is behind Suleiman's run.

There is any number of competing explanations for the return of Omar Pasha:

1. Let me caveat before I even begin. I don't think too many Egyptians actually believe this one, but I've heard it and read it so it deserves some attention.  Here goes:  Omar Suleiman is the Muslim Brotherhood's solution to the Muslim Brotherhood's Muslim Brotherhood problem.   Not expecting the buzz saw of internal and external criticism resulting from their nomination of Khairat al Shater for president, the Brothers have struck some sort of deal with Suleiman, calculating that the former intelligence chief and vice president will win.  This will relieve the Brothers of the responsibilities and risks of controlling parliament, the presidency, and likely the government.  This argument hinges on the fact that during the uprising Suleiman sought to negotiate with the Brotherhood's senior leadership rather than the revolutionaries who instigated the demonstrations.  Although Suleiman's outreach to the Brothers during those eighteen days of national upheaval demonstrated his inability to grasp the political dynamics of that moment, it was a stunningly accurate assessment of which group would likely play an influential role in Egypt's future.  Be that as it may, it seems unlikely that the Brotherhood would seek a solution to their political problems through a deal with Suleiman.  Why enable even a partial restoration of the previous regime against which the Brothers have been agitating since the 1950s, especially when power seems to be well within the Islamists' grasp? Once more, the ferocious rhetorical response to Suleiman's candidacy from Brotherhood figures including Khairat al Shater who warned that the former vice president was a "New Mubarak" suggests that the Brothers see Omar Pasha as a grave threat to their political project.  Things are not always what they seem to be and there is a lot of "game playing" going on in Egypt as one informant told me recently, but there is no reason to put any stock in the MB-Omar nexus theory.

Rating:  Nonsense

2. Omar Suleiman's candidacy represents the Egyptian intelligence community's bid for supremacy in post-Mubarak Egypt.  Not only possible, but also entirely plausible. It is important to remember that throughout the uprising and the transition, politics, street demonstrations, and periodic spasms of violence have buffeted and taxed the ministries of defense and interior, which are rivals anyway.  Yet the General Intelligence Service and Military Intelligence have, to the extent that one can see into these opaque organizations, remained intact and more than capable of carrying out their functions, which include both domestic and foreign intelligence.  In many ways, the uncertainty of post-uprising Egypt is an environment in which intel operators well-versed in the dark arts of manipulation, denial and deception, as well as intimidation, thrive.  The GIS has its own organizational  interests, views, and goals that may conflict with Egypt's other primary political actors--the SCAF, parliament, Muslim Brotherhood, and the revolutionary groups who may not command the authority and resources necessary to challenge intel's bid for leadership.

Presented by

Steven A. Cook is Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square. He blogs at From the Potomac to the Euphrates.

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