Contents | October 2003
More on foreign affairs from The Atlantic Monthly.
From the archives:
"Letter From Egypt" (September 2002)
"There is a question," our correspondent writes, "that less-sophisticated Americans ask (and more-sophisticated Americans would like to): Why are people in the Middle East so crazy? Here, at the pyramids, was an answer from the earliest days of civilization: People have always been crazy." By P. J. O'Rourke
"The Crash of EgyptAir 990" (November 2001)
Two years afterward the U.S. and Egyptian governments are still quarreling over the cause—a clash that grows out of cultural division, not factual uncertainty. By William Langewiesche
From Atlantic Unbound:
Politics & Prose: "The Real Roots of Terror" (December 5, 2001)
The autocratic regimes of Saudi Arabia and Egypt distract their citizens from repression at home by directing their anger toward the U.S. By Jack Beatty
Interviews: "Culture Crash" (February 17, 1999)
A conversation with William Langewiesche, the author of "The Crash of EgyptAir 990," on the cultural reverberations of a seemingly straightforward airplane crash.
Interviews: "Islam Rising" (February 17, 1999)
A conversation with Mary Anne Weaver, whose new book shows that there is much more to Islamic activism than guns and bombs.
The Atlantic Monthly | October 2003
his past January, Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's aging President—increasingly lonely in the splendid isolation of the palaces from which he reigns—made an astonishing remark on national TV. It came during the Cairo International Book Fair, the Egyptian capital's cultural event of the year, which Mubarak uses as an occasion to meet Egyptian intellectuals. The seventy-five-year-old President was particularly irritable that morning, one of his aides told me. With war imminent in Iraq, and with growing pressure from the Bush Administration for "regime change" elsewhere in the Middle East, most particularly, at the moment, in Iran, Mubarak felt ever more under siege. His old order was being vanquished; anger on his streets was raw and rife; and the time appeared to have come to implement democratic and economic reforms, something he had tenaciously resisted. He didn't particularly enjoy meeting intellectuals, especially when his popularity was diminishing at home—and now also in Washington. Indeed, to many of those assembled in the fair's main hall, Mubarak seemed to be walking perhaps the most precarious tightrope he had ever walked. As he made his way through the crowd, a prominent writer asked him if it was true that in an effort to avert war in Iraq, Saudi Arabia had attempted to persuade Saddam Hussein to step down.
Who will succeed Egypt's Hosni Mubarak as the ruler of the world's most populous and important Arab country?
by Mary Anne Weaver
Mubarak, normally a man of stolid demeanor and few words, looked genuinely startled. "Impossible!" he replied. "No President ever steps down!"
Egyptians were incredulous. After twenty-two years, Mubarak already was the longest-serving President in their country's history, and popular anger against his regime was on the rise. Although Egypt is nominally a democracy, a government-controlled committee has vetted new political parties for a quarter of a century—and has refused every application except one. Mubarak has presented himself to Egyptian voters for six-year terms an unprecedented four times—but in referenda in which no opposition candidates were permitted to stand and voters simply had the choice of voting yes or no.
During Mubarak's rule the real arbiters of power have changed little. Ever since he took over the presidency, in 1981 (after militant Islamists assassinated his predecessor, Anwar Sadat), Mubarak has led Egypt as the head of a narrow ruling circle of military officers and security and intelligence men. Sadat was part of that same circle, as was his predecessor, the legendary Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, who in 1952 led a secular, Arab-nationalist revolution that today is exhausted and in steady decline. And yet, although his regime has for some time been authoritarian, surrounded by corruption and political stagnation, and inclined to suppress dissent by often unsavory means, the United States until recently was content to let Mubarak reign supreme, and indefinitely. In exchange, Mubarak, a former commander of the Egyptian air force, transformed Egypt into Washington's second most important strategic partner in the Middle East. On assuming office he immediately reaffirmed Egypt's commitment to its peace treaty with Israel, re-established his country as the leader of the Arab world, and set to work behind the scenes as a mediator in the ongoing quest for a larger Middle Eastern peace. Over a decade ago he, more than anyone else, gave legitimacy to the U.S.-led coalition in the Gulf War. He not only moved quickly to persuade several Arab states to join the coalition following Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, but also dispatched 36,000 soldiers to the battlefield and provided the United States with overflight and basing rights. For all intents and purposes, Mubarak remade Cairo into the hub of U.S. policy in the Arab world; and for his efforts he has been rewarded handsomely. Egypt today receives more U.S. foreign aid—worth some $2 billion a year—than any other country in the world except Israel.
But not all is well in Mubarak's Egypt. Little of the billions of dollars in aid the country receives each year has ever trickled down: per capita GNP is frozen at about $1400 a year, and half of the population is illiterate. The political system has ossified. And although Mubarak boasts of Egypt's stability, his people—some 70 million, a quarter of the Arab world—have lived under an official state of emergency for all but eight of the past sixty-four years. Half of all Egyptians have never known life without it; and there are now nearly twice as many Egyptians as there were when Mubarak assumed power. The number of Cairenes increases by nearly a thousand every day; the total number of Egyptians grows by more than a million every year; and the amount of resentment and disillusionment in the country has grown incalculably.
These emotions are being exploited most effectively by the country's Islamists—in particular, the Muslim Brotherhood, which in recent years has established itself as an increasingly appealing political alternative. During the buildup to the Iraq War, I spent a month in Cairo—where I lived more than twenty years ago and have visited regularly since—and I was struck more than ever before by how Islamic the city has become. Large numbers of women now wear headscarves, or hijabs; some wear veils. Many men sport full Islamic beards. Indeed, even among Egypt's wealthy and Western-educated professionals, long favorably disposed toward the United States and secular politics, I noticed a resurgence of religious piety. I was also struck by the extent to which the city seemed angry and out of control—as was made clear earlier this year, when a pro-Palestinian, pro-Iraq, anti-government demonstration brought some 20,000 protesters onto Cairo's streets. "Jihad! Jihad! Jihad!" the swelling crowds shouted as they hurled rocks at the police. The government responded brutally. According to human-rights groups, hundreds were arrested and dozens tortured.
At the same time, the U.S.-Egyptian relationship was souring considerably. The process began when President Bill Clinton, in his final months in office, was frantically trying to forge a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and Mubarak was unable to bring Yasir Arafat into line—a disastrous failing, in Washington's view. "If he can't even deliver Arafat," one State Department official recently said to me, "what the hell can he do?" American anger with Mubarak began to grow. Then, in quick succession, the President's infamous security men arrested Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a prominent Egyptian-American civil-rights advocate and one of the Arab world's leading social scientists; the official Egyptian press began to publish increasingly tasteless anti-Semitic and anti-American cartoons and editorials; and state-controlled television ran a series called Horseman Without a Horse, based in large part on the long discredited Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Washington was furious.
Yet if there was a single turning point in the relationship, it came in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, when Mubarak and his regime doggedly went into denial—refusing to acknowledge that Osama bin Laden's designated heir, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was an Egyptian physician radicalized in Mubarak's jails; that Mohammed Atef, bin Laden's director of military operations, was a former Egyptian policeman; and that Mohammed Atta, who had crashed American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, was the son of a Cairo lawyer. Hundreds of other Egyptians filled al-Qaeda's ranks. Indeed, it was often said prior to September 11 that al-Qaeda was an Egyptian organization with a Saudi head.
Then there was the Iraq War—which, despite tremendous pressure from the United States, Egypt had very conspicuously criticized and sat out, with Mubarak warning Washington publicly that a continuing U.S. presence in Iraq would produce "a hundred bin Ladens." The American decision to go to war in Iraq, against the objections of Mubarak and his generals, put a remarkable strain on the only significant element of the U.S.-Egyptian relationship that remained intact: military cooperation. Just how unhappy the Egyptian ruling elite was with Washington became clear to me when I met with Major General Fuad Saad al-Din, the governor of Ismailia. He had just finished lunching with the U.S. ambassador and the U.S. military attaché; one of his aides told me that the meeting had not gone well. "This war," the general said, surely reprising what he had just told the Americans, "has all the earmarks of being a total disaster!"
Angry and exasperated at the lack of cooperation during the war, among other things, the Bush Administration told Mubarak, without the usual nuanced diplomacy, that his senescent regime—which survives almost exclusively on American aid—simply had to reform. While I was in Egypt pressure on Mubarak grew palpably by the day. There was, of course, the much noted public outcry over the war. But there was a significant undercurrent, too: many Egyptians were of the view that "regime change" might not be such a bad idea at home.
Caught between the not altogether conflicting pressures from Washington and the Egyptian street, Mubarak and his generals are being forced to confront some delicate questions about political reform, including the most delicate one of all: Who will succeed Hosni Mubarak as President?
he question of succession in Egypt is a surprisingly open one, and the country's entire political future rests on it. An astonishing aspect of Hosni Mubarak's twenty-two-year rule—though it is little discussed outside the Middle East—is that he has never appointed a Vice President or anointed an heir, something that neither Sadat nor Nasser dared to neglect. His dilemma has always been whether to appoint a civilian or a military man. Now, finally, he seems to be grooming an heir in each camp: one a general, the other an entrepreneur; the first arguably his closest aide, the second his son.
Until not so long ago few Egyptians even knew who Lieutenant General Omar Suleiman, Egypt's powerful chief of intelligence, was. Suleiman, sixty-seven, had moved quietly through the shadows for years. But then, curiously, the general began coming out. And his emergence was all the more curious because it coincided with the rise of Gamal Mubarak, the President's forty-year-old younger son. Suleiman, a member of Egypt's highest caste, the military, which considers itself destined to rule, came of age on the battlefields of the Arab-Israeli wars. He stands for law and order and stability. Gamal—only a child in 1967, when the most devastating of those wars occurred—came of age in his father's palaces and at the best of Egypt's universities and private clubs. He is meant to represent cautious economic and one-party political reform. Many consider Suleiman too old and Gamal too young; neither generates enthusiasm from the Egyptian intellectuals and professionals over whom he might rule. But the profile of each has risen dramatically in the past two and a half years, and the chattering classes are chattering, endlessly: Should Mubarak and his generals promote another soldier from within the regime? Should they join other leaders of the authoritarian Arab world in establishing the incongruous concept of a republican dynasty? Would the military countenance such a thing? Or is now the time to permit a free and fair election, with the probability that an outsider—almost certainly from the Muslim Brotherhood—will win? Should Mubarak anoint a son, a soldier, or a sheikh?
How these questions are answered will be critical not only for Egypt but also for the United States, and for the rest of the Arab world—a world in which what happens in Cairo, the region's geopolitical, cultural, and intellectual capital, has always been a harbinger of things to come.
all and well-proportioned, with a boyish face, short-cropped hair, and an engaging smile, Gamal Mubarak looks more like his Welsh-Egyptian mother, Suzanne, than like the stout and flat-featured President. He has an aquiline nose, dark hair, and dark eyes, and he moves with long and purposeful strides. He favors the latest fashions and is particularly comfortable in hand-tailored suits of fine English cloth and in supple, hand-stitched Italian leather shoes.
Professionally, Gamal—or Jimmy, as he is called by friends—is an investment banker, a financial consultant, and the founder or chairman of various foundations and boards. He spent his student days at the American University in Cairo, where he received both an undergraduate degree and an M.B.A. A bachelor, he is said to enjoy the company of attractive women and to have a penchant for expensive sports cars. Unlike the other sons-in-waiting across the Arab world, Gamal for most of his life did not seem on a path to accede to his father's post. But not long before the September 11 attacks the father began grooming the son.
Looking back now, one can chart an oddly precise parallel between the decline in the U.S.-Egyptian relationship—accompanied by mounting pressure for political reform—and the rise of the son. First, in the mid-1990s, Gamal returned home, after six years in London with Bank of America, and was soon given a senior post in his father's ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). Then, in September of last year, just when the Bush Administration first began to publicly champion the idea of regime change in Iraq, Gamal gained further prominence in the party with his appointment to the newly created position of Secretary of Policies, charged with reform. He began to accompany his father on official visits abroad and to attend cabinet meetings, much to the collective irritation of the largely septuagenarian government. He set up the Future Generation Foundation, which is meant to promote young Egyptians in business and public life, and a private equity firm called MedInvest, which now has $100 million in assets.
His key priority, however, appeared to be to court the country's immensely wealthy business community—the only new element on Egypt's sclerotic political scene. They were largely young and seemed to be Gamal's natural constituency; they were also keenly aware that economic reform was long overdue, as was he. Gamal moved easily through their world of villas in the desert and weekend chalets on the sea, and was certainly far more comfortable with them than with his father's military entourage, or with the entrenched officials of the NDP—the standard-bearers of a party rife with ward bosses, corruption, and patronage.
One senses that Hosni Mubarak is never quite certain how his son should project himself. Should he be the advocate of free-market economic reforms? The impresario of Egypt's thriving mobile-phone sector? The banker who oversaw the January flotation of the Egyptian pound—an economic reform Washington sought for years? Should he be described as the protégé of Peter Mandelson, the British member of Parliament who reshaped the Labour Party and Tony Blair and was now attempting to reshape Gamal? Or should he simply be his father's son?
Hosni Mubarak had little time to decide which persona fit Gamal best; barely had he begun the careful process of legitimizing him when the U.S. war in Afghanistan began, followed by the war in Iraq. Mubarak is an exceedingly cautious and plodding man whose best day, a Western ambassador once said to me, is "when he wakes up and goes to bed and nothing has happened." But feeling on the street was now on the verge of boiling over; the economy had suffered a sudden and serious slump; and the country's businessmen were becoming increasingly concerned about the nearly four-year delay of his privatization process, once heralded as proof of Egypt's commitment to economic reform. The government's reputation for rampant corruption was also fueling popular discontent and was being exploited by the Islamists. Particularly nettlesome were accusations against the Gang of Sons, as the wheeling-and-dealing offspring of a number of key Mubarak officials are called; one of the most frequently mentioned was Ala'a, Gamal's older brother—who, as a result, according to Western diplomats, had been passed over as his father's potential heir. As if that were not enough, in parliamentary elections in the autumn of 2000—despite mass arrests, intimidation, and the best efforts of the regime to prevent Islamists from voting or standing in the poll—the Muslim Brotherhood, whose candidates ran as independents, had emerged as the second largest bloc in the largely symbolic parliament. The army was restive. Then came the final insult: the Bush Administration made clear that its preferred interlocutors in the Arab world were now Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Egypt's powerful generals were not pleased. Nor were they happy with the idea of a Mubarak dynasty; they largely favored the ascendancy of one of their own. When I raised the succession question with a retired major general, he said with a smile, "We're still rather Sphinxlike. But that being said, go to any officers' club and you'll hear the discussion again and again. Egypt is not a country that should have a dynastic succession. It's just never happened here. Our tradition is that the country should be ruled by a military man. Nasser had a son, Sadat had a son, and in neither case was a son anointed. Nobody even considered it."
I asked Ali Hilal Dessouki, the Minister of Youth and a key political mentor to Gamal, what he thought about the major general's skepticism. "One of Gamal's greatest strengths," he replied, without answering, "is his keen awareness of the need for reform. Look at our demographics! Two thirds of our population is under the age of thirty-five. Eight hundred thousand graduates enter the job market every year; and they make up almost ninety percent of our unemployment. Gamal also understands our number-two problem, which is the result of the first—and that is the spread of religious extremism, especially among the young. For some time now our only effective discourse has been a religious one, and as a result, every issue has been shrouded in religion: 'Does religion approve interest in banking? Does it approve tourism? What is a proper Islamic lifestyle?' Religion has become pervasive. And Gamal knows this."
I heard a different assessment of Gamal from Hisham Kassem, the publisher of the English-language weekly The Cairo Times and the president of the Egyptian Organization of Human Rights. "I've followed Gamal's speeches," he told me, "and like every other editor, I've struggled to find something new. It's just not there. Gamal is average, no more than that. He was an average student, an average banker, who might have been demoted or let go by Bank of America had he not been the son of the President." One U.S. official who has met Gamal several times echoed that view. "He makes a very good impression," he told me. "He's very confident and, more than his father, he understands where Americans are coming from. That's the package. But what's inside?"
Hisham Kassem believes that not much is. "I really don't think Gamal is a serious contender for the presidency," he said. "His father must understand the danger of someone as green as Gamal inheriting the job. He simply wouldn't survive. Perhaps three months, perhaps less, and then there'd be a countercoup, or Gamal would be placed under house arrest."
One of the more puzzling things about the elder Mubarak is that he has persevered in grooming Gamal despite his generals' displeasure. During the time I spent in Cairo, Gamal was on a whirlwind tour of the United States, leading his first official delegation to Washington. While there he granted an interview to The Washington Post, one that the Bush Administration and others found troubling. He said that reform of the Egyptian referendum system—the system that has consecrated his father's presidency for more than two decades—was simply "not on the agenda." When asked about numerous reports, including one from the State Department, that criticism of Mubarak or his possible dynasty was the easiest way to get the attention of Egypt's censors and prosecutors, he replied, "Absurd." He also said earnestly, "In terms of elections ... in terms of dissent, in terms of argument and counterargument ... we've come a long way."
At about the time Gamal made that remark, I was weaving my way around the pavilions and through the stalls of the Cairo International Book Fair, looking for an antiwar demonstration that I had heard was under way. I soon found the equivalent of a city block surrounded by some 2,000 baton-wielding riot police and plainclothes security men. Inside the cordon were about fifty demonstrators and ten journalists. A police general was in charge, and he strutted back and forth, a swagger stick jutting out from under his arm. As I watched him stepping smartly, I remembered something a Western ambassador had told me a few days earlier. "Egypt moves in fits and starts," he said. "But I truly doubt that we're going to see real change here, as long as the intelligence and security people remain as watchful as they are. You liberalize the economy, and then you'll have an even greater disparity between the rich and the poor; you open the political process, and then you'll see very open censure of this regime. Either scenario could bring people into the streets."
Only twice in Egypt's modern history—in 1977, during food riots, and then again in 1986, during riots by police recruits—has the Egyptian army been brought into the streets in order to safeguard the country's presidency. Yet in the aftermath of the Iraq War some of its units are being readied and trained to face just such a possibility. And there is an inherent danger in all this for Mubarak, of course: if his army is sent into the streets again, will its soldiers fire on their fellow Egyptians?
A few weeks after the protest at the book fair, Mubarak sanctioned two anti-U.S. demonstrations, both of which were huge, in an effort to channel public anger over Iraq. The opposition, largely the Muslim Brotherhood, organized the first; the second was organized by the NDP and co-hosted by Gamal. Security arrangements for both were supervised by the enigmatic General Omar Suleiman.
ena, a city in Egypt's south, is a brooding and melancholy place in the midst of the desert, and its people, like those in the rest of Upper Egypt, are the country's most neglected, poorest, least educated, and most uncontrolled. It has a reputation for clannishness and a strict code of honor, which requires that revenge be exacted for a wrong. It also has the feel of a small, sparse place, with three or four sad little parks. I visited the city frequently as a journalist during the 1990s, because it was in the forefront of the Islamist insurrection against Mubarak's government. And it was there, in 1935, that Omar Suleiman was born.
Physically the general reminds me a bit of Anwar Sadat. He is tall and slim, with the kind of Upper Egyptian, Nubian looks that Sadat had. His complexion is fairly dark, and his features are less heavy than most Egyptians'. Now nearly bald, he has a fringe of dark hair that is complemented by a graying dark moustache.
Suleiman left Qena for Cairo in 1954, at the age of nineteen, to enroll in Egypt's prestigious Military Academy. The road he traveled out of Upper Egypt was the same one traveled by a number of prominent members of the Muslim Brotherhood—for the two traditional routes of upward mobility in places like Qena are to become a soldier or a sheikh. After his graduation from the academy, Suleiman, at the behest of Nasser, was sent to the Soviet Union (then Egypt's chief arms supplier) for advanced training at Moscow's Frunze Military Academy. "After we were nominated, Nasser called us in," a retired general who also trained at Frunze told me one morning over tea. "He told us that he had only one request: he wanted us to return home as anti-communists." Omar Suleiman did. Two Arab-Israeli wars followed his return: first in 1967 and then in 1973. In the mid-1980s—by which time he had distinguished himself as a brilliant military strategist and had received bachelor's and master's degrees in political science from Ain Shams and Cairo Universities—Suleiman was transferred to military intelligence, where he began what was to be a long relationship with Washington.
That relationship was reinforced during the two Bush Administrations' wars against Iraq. In 1991 Suleiman was the director of military intelligence. "He was a very proactive director, sometimes ahead of us," one U.S. official who has worked with Suleiman over the years told me when I raised the possibility of the general's succession to the presidency. "He's a moderate, a very decent guy who's been around for a long time. He's acceptable to the business community. But very few people know his political views. That being said, I think in the long term we'll end up being more comfortable with him."
In 1993 Suleiman was named the director of general intelligence—the head of the most significant intelligence-gathering organization in the Arab world (in effect, the head of Egypt's CIA). But not until the summer of 1995 did the general and the President develop their present relationship.
Mubarak was planning to attend a summit meeting of the Organization of African Unity, in Addis Ababa. During a cabinet meeting the day before his departure Suleiman insisted that Mubarak take his armored Mercedes limousine to the Ethiopian capital. The President's foreign-policy advisers were aghast: it would be an extraordinary affront to the Ethiopians, they said. But Suleiman was adamant.
At 8:15 on the morning of June 26 Mubarak's three-car motorcade pulled out of the airport in Addis Ababa. Suleiman was sitting with Mubarak in the back seat of the President's limousine when AK-47 machine-gun fire began. Three gunmen fired round after round at close range, which thumped repeatedly into the limousine. Other rounds rained down from rooftops. An ordinary vehicle would never have survived the fusillade. General Suleiman had saved Hosni Mubarak's life. The would-be assassins were eleven members of the militant Islamist group Gama'a al-Islamiya; all were from Upper Egypt, and some from Qena.
There was irony implicit in the fact that a high-achieving general from Qena had saved Mubarak that day—from other high achievers who came from the same obscure little place. The main difference was that the would-be assassins, all successful university students or graduates, had never been permitted a political space. Life in Mubarak's Egypt is so circumscribed that the country's political parties have little to do with the country's political trends. As a result the only two forces of significant consequence are the generals and the Islamists.
Mubarak returned to Cairo full of rage, as did Omar Suleiman. But the general also began to sense that his government was on a potentially dangerous path. Its every effort to break Egypt's Islamist movement or to counter the movement's appeal—whether by brutal suppression or by a carefully orchestrated campaign to make itself appear more Islamic than the activists—had failed.
It was only in June of 2000, five years after the assassination attempt in Addis Ababa, that Egyptians were first int roduced to General Suleiman. Until then the Egyptian press had rarely even mentioned his name. But then, in his first public appearance, the general marched solemnly alongside Mubarak and other aging leaders of the Arab world to the burial ground of Syria's President Hafez al-Assad—who, of course, had been succeeded by his son, Bashar. For Egyptians, the strange significance of the moment was not lost. Suleiman's first public function was attending a funeral and an act of succession.
That September, when the current Palestinian intifada broke out and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process came to an abrupt halt, Suleiman, for all intents and purposes, assumed Egypt's "Palestinian portfolio." Shuttling tirelessly between Israel and the West Bank and Gaza Strip, he embarked on secret negotiations with the Mossad and the government of Ariel Sharon. One of his chief interlocutors was Omri Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister's son. He spent endless hours with Arafat, and with the leaders of Hamas, pleading for a cease-fire—which he finally helped achieve this past June. And he was instrumental in persuading a reluctant Arafat to appoint, at the insistence of the United States, Mahmoud Abbas as the Palestinians' Prime Minister.
The President began to spend more and more time with his intelligence chief. "He tells Mubarak everything that's happening," one of the retired generals I spoke to said. "After twenty-two years in power, the gerontocracy that surrounds the President tells him what they think he wants to hear. Suleiman tells Mubarak the way it is."
I asked an Egyptian ambassador how Suleiman is perceived on the diplomatic stage. "He's held in high esteem by the Israelis and by the Palestinians," the ambassador said. "And the Americans trust him more than anyone else."
Suleiman is an increasingly frequent visitor to Washington—and, in fact, has become a key Mubarak troubleshooter and point person with the United States. At first he was not altogether comfortable in his new role. "As an intelligence man, he's used to working in the shadows," the general, who is a friend of Suleiman's, went on. "It's difficult for him to stand up in a nonmilitary setting and make a speech; he doesn't have the charisma that a politician has. But that being said, he's not unsophisticated, nor is he a timid man. I've dealt with him over the years and have seen him tell the high command, 'This is wrong, and this is right,' even when his opinions have not been popular. He's not on good terms with [Field Marshal Mohammed] Tantawi"—the Minister of Defense, who would have been a logical successor to the presidency, but he's in poor health and nearly as old as Mubarak—"but that's not uncommon here. One of the givens in Egypt is that the chief of intelligence, the Minister of the Interior, and the Minister of Defense are meant to dislike one another. It's one of the ways that Mubarak manages to stay ahead of them."
To learn more about General Suleiman's new public image, I asked Hisham Kassem, of The Cairo Times, about it. He pointed to two enlarged photographs of Suleiman that hang above his desk. One had appeared in The Cairo Times a few months before, the other in the official government press shortly afterward. The Cairo Times photograph shows a dour and rigid Suleiman, seemingly annoyed by the intrusion of the photographer's lens, standing with Yasir Arafat, with whom the general was attempting to negotiate the cease-fire in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The official photograph, taken at the same time, shows a more sympathetic Suleiman: his eyes are twinkling, almost in a smile; his posture is more relaxed; and Arafat seems to have shrunk in the general's commanding presence.
The political game is not in Omar Suleiman's blood. Yet now he, like Gamal Mubarak, is seemingly being groomed by the establishment—of which both men, of course, are part. One of the more intriguing questions about their emergence as potential successors is whether they are being groomed in tandem or, perhaps, represent a power struggle between reformers and hard-liners of the regime. This might explain the government's often zigzag policies. When, for example, Gamal Mubarak was credited with establishing a council for human rights, General Suleiman was held responsible for a newly restrictive law on the activities of nongovernmental organizations. And when the younger Mubarak championed the abolition of state security courts, Suleiman was the driving force behind the renewal of emergency law. Cairenes were mystified, and some began to ask whether the tight cabal of generals ruling Egypt was in danger of losing its grip.
y this summer it was clear that an unintended consequence of the destruction of Saddam Hussein's secular government was that the way had been paved for the emergence in Iraq of a formidable Shiite clerical bloc—one that could end up dominating politics in the Middle East for years to come. At the same time, the volume of "chatter" intercepted between various militant Islamist groups had convinced U.S. intelligence officials that Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda was very much alive. The chatter also indicated the emergence of a new leader in the organization: a name new to many, he is Saif al-Adel. A member of the militant Egyptian group al-Jihad, bin Laden's former chief of security, and before that one of his bodyguards, al-Adel is believed by intelligence officials to have assumed the role of al-Qaeda's military commander—making him No. 3 in the organization. That he's a former Egyptian army colonel trained in special operations is not a surprise: members of Egypt's army, intelligence services, and police have long been key members of al-Jihad—a military cell of which was responsible for the assassination of Anwar Sadat. And since the mid-1990s al-Qaeda has drawn its most capable, competent, and ruthless operatives from al-Jihad. Some were radicalized in Mubarak's prisons, others in army mosques, still others in the decade-long Egyptian-supported and CIA-financed jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Saif al-Adel—whose real name is Mohammed Makkawi—was sculpted by all three. Ambitious and erratic, he may have directed three lethal car bombings in Riyadh this past May; and is said to have devised a plan, as early as 1987, to hijack an Egyptian commercial jet and crash it into the country's parliament. Al-Adel's army training proved critical over the years, as did his friendship with Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's designated heir, who had served as a surgeon in the Egyptian army.
"Whatever happens in Egypt in the aftermath of Iraq," a Western diplomat told me recently, "one of the key questions is, To what extent have the Islamists infiltrated the army? We're seeing a lot of beards in the lower ranks, and these guys are not that keen on the United States. The government is newly watchful of the ranks, and that watchfulness tells me there's something to be worried about." He went on to tell me that Tantawi, the Minister of Defense, shocked his aides during a visit to an army hospital this past spring when, upon noticing that an army nurse was wearing the hijab, he strode across the ward and tore her headscarf off.
I asked Montasser al-Zayat, an Egyptian Islamist lawyer I have known for a number of years, what he thought the Islamist strength in the army was. A cheerful man with a long dark beard and some girth, al-Zayat has defended hundreds, if not thousands, of members of Gama'a and al-Jihad. He said that on average 10 to 15 percent of the defendants in Islamist trials are former or active-duty military men—a surprisingly high figure considering the extent to which Mubarak has purged the army over the years. And yet despite his purges military men have been involved in all of the known attempts on the President's life. The new generation of army officers—men not unlike al-Adel, who joined the military after the humiliation of the Six-Day War—is more Islamic than the previous, nationalist one: the generation of Omar Suleiman, which came of age shortly after Nasser's revolution in 1952. This new generation came of age after that revolution was perceived to have failed.
In the early months of 1997 al-Zayat was instrumental in negotiating a cease-fire declared by imprisoned leaders of Gama'a and al-Jihad. He has never been willing to tell me who his negotiating partners in the government were, but on my recent visit one of Mubarak's aides told me that the key figure behind the scenes was Omar Suleiman.
The cease-fire call later that year essentially ended the war between the Islamists and the state. The battle was transformed into a political struggle between Mubarak's government and the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that over the years has been sometimes tolerated, sometimes suppressed, sometimes in alliance with various Egyptian regimes, but always—for five decades, despite its renunciation of violence in the 1990s—officially banned. The Islamist movement's most moderate voice, the Brotherhood has in recent years made significant strides toward its ultimate goal of usurping power by stealth: it has set up impressive social structures, including hospitals and schools, far superior to those in rundown government facilities. It has also routinely swept elections in Egypt's most important unions, student organizations, and professional syndicates. But during the 1990s, at the height of the Islamist insurgency, it suffered defections from its ranks, particularly among the young, who were increasingly frustrated by the ongoing failure of the Brotherhood to reverse the emergency order banning it. As a result, young men and women from the generation that Gamal Mubarak is attempting to woo swelled the ranks of the militant Islamist underground.
Since everyone to whom I spoke agreed that the Islamists would almost certainly win if free and fair elections were held in Egypt in the coming months or year, I asked Montasser al-Zayat what General Suleiman's position on the Islamists is. He didn't answer immediately. Then he said, "Sometimes he stands with the hard-liners. In other areas he's a moderate."
"Such as?" I asked.
"He always objected to the torture that the Islamists were subjected to—because he realized that in the end, torture is a self-defeating concept. He wants to contain the Islamists, without giving them significant gains. But he wants them to be present, to have some political space. In other words, his view is to let limited numbers stand in elections, to be part of the process as long as they play according to the rules and are obedient."
I knew that a quiet dialogue between the Islamists and the regime still existed in fits and starts, so I asked al-Zayat what its status was.
He smiled. "No war, no peace."
"Does General Suleiman favor legalizing the Muslim Brotherhood?"
Al-Zayat leaned back in his chair and stroked his beard. Then he said, "The Americans would never accept it."
And yet the Brotherhood is the best-organized—indeed, the only—political opposition in Egypt. It cooperated for a time with Nasser, and was used by Sadat as a counterbalance to the left. I puzzled over whether such a coming together of the generals and the Islamists could happen again.
As I left al-Zayat's office and drove back to my hotel, I passed a number of butcher shops, where lamb carcasses hung from spikes encircled by strings of twinkling lights. Shoppers queued patiently outside the shops. It was the eve of the Eid al-Adha, the feast of the sacrifice, Islam's most important holiday. To mark the occasion, 861 Islamists—many of whom had never been charged or tried—were released from prison that night. Some 15,000 others remained inside.
I couldn't help wondering if the releases were connected with a message that al-Zayat had received (and posted on his Web site) a month or so before from Ayman al-Zawahiri—the Egyptian leader of al-Jihad and Osama bin Laden's chief aide—in which he had called for continuing attacks against Americans but had told his followers that those attacks should not be carried out in Egypt.
And not long after that, on the day of the Eid itself, bin Laden, in a sixteen-minute audiotape broadcast by the Arab satellite television station al-Jazeera, called on Muslims around the world to repel the U.S. invasion of Iraq. As he had sometimes done before, he cited a number of countries whose regimes should be overthrown. Egypt had usually been on his list. This time it was not.
Mary Anne Weaver is the author of A Portrait of Egypt: A Journey Through the World of Militant Islam (1999) and Pakistan: In the Shadow of Jihad and Afghanistan (2002). Her article "Blowback," about the emergence of Osama bin Laden and the rise of global militant Islam, appeared in the May 1996 Atlantic.
Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; October 2003; Pharaohs-in-Waiting; Volume 292, No. 3; 79-92.