Hosni Mubarak, facing unprecedented protests, relinquished power as Egypt’s president on Feb. 11. It was his vice president – the first man to hold the post, which was created just two weeks earlier – who announced the news to ebullient Egyptians and who seems likely to play a key role in Egypt’s future.
Omar Suleiman, a former spy chief with a penchant for Hemingway, is one of the former president’s most trusted men – not least because he is credited with saving the president from a 1995 assassination attempt in Ethiopia.
Although Mubarak’s powers have been transferred to the military, Suleiman was previously given the responsibility of managing the transition to a post-Mubarak era, and is likely to continue playing a key role.
Suleiman is a palatable choice for the US, which has long had close ties with him. But many Egyptians and human rights activists see him as the face of brutal treatment of detainees. Protesters reject him as unlikely to effect meaningful change.
Suleiman has been identified by journalists and academics as a key contact for the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program, which sent terror suspects to countries known to use harsher interrogation tactics. Lisa Hajjar, a professor who studies torture at the University of California-Santa Barbara, goes so far as to call him Egypt’s “torturer-in-chief.”
Born to a humble family in the Upper Egypt city of Qena, Suleiman attended Egypt’s military academy, trained in the former Soviet Union, and later earned degrees at Cairo University and at Ain Shams University in Cairo. Before becoming vice president, Suleiman had long held the post of chief of the General Intelligence Service, and before that served as director of military intelligence.
He’s “very bright, very realistic,” said Edward S. Walker, Jr., a former US ambassador to Egypt, in the book “The Dark Side.” But Mr. Walker also told the book’s author, journalist Jane Mayer, that while Suleiman recognized the downsides of “negative things that the Egyptians engaged in ... torture, and so on ... he was not squeamish.”
Suleiman’s military background, along with his tough stances on Hamas, Iran, and political Islamism, make him a well-received choice with the armed forces – and the US. “Our intelligence collaboration with Omar [Suleiman] ... is now probably the most successful element of the relationship” between Egypt and the US, stated a 2006 US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks.
But for protesters in Tahrir Square, it’s not just Mubarak who is the problem – it’s his whole regime, possibly including stalwarts like Suleiman. “Getting rid of Mubarak and keeping the system means the revolution hasn’t succeeded,” says Ahmed Badr, a student who was protesting in Tahrir Square.