Many Egyptians loathe Omar Suleiman, a former intelligence chief whom rights advocates blame for decades of abuse and torture. But others see him as a man who can restore stability in Egypt.
Omar Suleiman, the right-hand man of former President Hosni Mubarak, announced today he will enter the race to become Egypt’s new leader after Mr. Mubarak was forced out by a massive uprising last year.
Mr. Suleiman's decision raises the possibility that, one year after an uprising that was spurred in part by the Mubarak regime’s brutality, torture, and oppression, one of the architects of that repression could become Egypt’s first post-Mubarak president.
Some see his candidacy as a response by Egypt’s military rulers to the Muslim Brotherhood’s recent decision to field a presidential candidate – a decision that broke a year-long promise to stay out of the race. Omar Ashour, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, says Suleiman’s candidacy raises the possibility that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which is currently ruling Egypt, may rig the elections to favor the former intelligence chief.
“His nomination is a bad sign,” says Dr. Ashour. “It's a sign [SCAF] may support him and commit fraud. … it seems the rift between [SCAF] and the Brotherhood is wider than many estimated.”
The Muslim Brotherhood, whose political party won nearly 50 percent of the seats in recent parliamentary elections, said in recent weeks that the military had threatened to rig the elections in favor of a military-supported candidate. The group’s leaders said the Brotherhood was forced to nominate a presidential candidate to thwart threats to Egypt’s democratic transition, in what many interpreted as a power struggle between the two dominant forces in Egyptian politics – the Islamist Brotherhood and the secular military.
In a statement announcing his candidacy, Suleiman promised to “complete the goals of the revolution” and “achieve the hopes of the Egyptian people, including security, stability, and prosperity.” His entrance into the race has been rumored for weeks, but came just days after he announced he would not run for president. In today’s statement, he said he reversed course to "answer the call of the people."
Suleiman led Egypt’s feared intelligence service for nearly two decades until Mubarak appointed him vice president in a failed attempt to quell last year’s uprising. It was Suleiman who announced on live television that Mubarak had stepped down on Feb. 11, 2011.
During Suleiman's tenure as director of Egypt’s General Intelligence Directorate, the ardent anti-Islamist oversaw crackdowns on the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the extraordinary rendition of suspected terrorists. Under that practice, the US sent such suspects to countries including Egypt, which tortured the suspects – on Suleiman’s watch and allegedly sometimes at his own hands – to extract information, and reported the information back to the US. According to rights advocates, he is responsible for decades of abuse and torture. One suspect who the US delivered to Egypt for interrogation, Ibn Al Shaikh Al Libi, revealed, under torture, supposed Al Qaeda ties to Saddam Hussein. That information, which turned out to be false, was used to bolster the US case for war in Iraq in 2003.
For years, Suleiman was not only intelligence chief, but, as Mubarak’s trusted deputy, one of the president’s connections to the US. He often spoke with US officials. He also oversaw certain portfolios in Egypt’s foreign affairs, like Palestinian reconciliation.
Many Egyptians loathe Suleiman. And in a sign his campaign might not fare well, those who were associated with the former regime fared poorly in the parliamentary elections. Some analysts say he is unlikely to win a fair election. But some Egyptians feel that he could bring security and stability back to Egypt, which has been rocked by protests and instability in the year since the uprising.
“I will vote for Omar Suleiman if he runs,” said mechanic Mohamed Ahmed last week. “The Brotherhood took the parliament; I don’t want them to take the presidency, too. Suleiman is experienced, and he can make Egypt stable again.”