Omar Suleiman, Mubarak intel chief, dies as quietly as he worked

Longtime intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, also former leader Hosni Mubarak's right-hand man and a key US partner in the War on Terror, died in a US hospital today.

Nasser Nasser/AP/File
In this file photo, Egyptian chief of intelligence Omar Suleiman is seen upon his departure after a short visit to Khartoum, Sudan. Egypt’s state news agency says the former spy chief and vice president has died in the US.

Omar Suleiman, the longtime intelligence chief under ousted president Hosni Mubarak who was also a friend and partner of the US, died in a US hospital early today, according to state media. 

Although Mr. Suleiman was Mubarak’s right-hand man and oversaw the torture of detainees in his nearly two decades as head of the General Intelligence Directorate, he was never arrested or charged with a crime after the uprising that ousted Mubarak, a testament to the power structure that endured even after Mubarak was toppled. Instead, he ran for president, provoking fears of a return of Mubarak’s regime before he was disqualified from the race.

Some Egyptians expressed satisfaction at Suleiman’s death, though they rued the fact that he was never punished for his crimes, while his band of loyal supporters mourned his passing. His death comes as Egypt’s new president, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood organization that Suleiman worked to suppress, welcomed to Cairo a leader of Hamas, the Brotherhood's Palestinian affiliate that Suleiman tried to undermine.  

Omar Ashour, professor of Middle East politics at the University of Exeter, says Suleiman was a divisive figure.

"For prodemocracy activists ... many of them think he was the brain behind the Mubarak regime's survival. To make this regime survive he became a brutal murderer and torturer," says Dr. Ashour, who is currently in Cairo. "For pro-Mubarak folks, he's seen as a force of stability and a hurdle to Islamist advance." For many, "he is the guy who tried to revive the Mubarak regime."

Suleiman leaves a legacy in Egypt's intelligence agencies of focusing them on domestic matters, rather than external threats, says Ashour. "I think his most important impact on the Egyptian Intelligence is his change of [the organization's] creed; change of dogma to perceive that the Islamists are the most critical threat, not any other entity, whether Israel or the Mossad."

Suleiman served as an army officer before moving to Egypt’s powerful intelligence agency, where he spent nearly two decades at the helm, most of them cloaked in secrecy. In the later years of Mubarak’s rule, Suleiman took on a more public role, and was often mentioned as a possible successor to Mubarak. He handled several foreign policy files, including relations with Palestinian factions, and was usually seen in public in that capacity.

Mubarak appointed Suleiman vice president during the uprising against his rule in an attempt to quell the protests and tasked him with negotiating with protester groups and the Muslim Brotherhood during the uprising. It was Suleiman who gave a televised address announcing that Mubarak had stepped down on Feb. 11, 2011. Afterward, he disappeared from public view, only to reemerge as a presidential candidate the next year. Despite – or perhaps because of – his connection to Mubarak, he attracted loyal supporters. But officials disqualified him from the race for failing to obtain the correct number of signatures on his candidacy forms.

Suleiman was well known to American officials. He was a trusted go-between for Mubarak with the Americans, and also helped US officials with their intelligence needs. A 2006 diplomatic cable from the US embassy in Cairo, revealed by anti-secrecy organization Wikileaks, discusses Suleiman’s desire to see Hamas fail and rival Fatah succeed. “In this regard, our intelligence collaboration with Omar Soliman … is now probably the most successful element of the [US-Egypt] relationship,” said the cable.

Suleiman was, like Mubarak, ardently opposed to Islamist groups like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, and assisted in Mubarak’s crackdowns on the Brotherhood. He also oversaw the extraordinary rendition of terrorism suspects to Egypt from US custody. Under this practice, the US sent suspects to Egypt to be interrogated (and often tortured) and Egypt relayed the information it extracted from the men back to its ally. 

The US delivered one such suspect, Libyan national Ibn Al Shaikh Al Libi, to Egypt for interrogation. According to a declassified CIA cable and a US Senate report, he revealed supposed Al Qaeda ties to Saddam Hussein while under torture. That information, used to bolster the US case for war in Iraq in 2003, turned out to be false. 

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