Faced with thousands of Egyptians in Tahrir Square in February 2011, the man responsible for the security of the Mubarak regime was reportedly asked what he wanted the protesters to do.
“I want them to go home,” came his reply.
General Omar Suleiman, the former head of the Egyptian General Intelligence Apparatus (EGIA), Hosni Mubarak’s deputy just before his ousting, and a former presidential candidate, died aged 76 in Cleveland, Ohio, on July 19, 2012. But his legacy will undoubtedly live on.
Suleiman was the head of the EGIA, the country’s espionage agency, for 18 years between 1993 and 2011 – making him the longest serving director since the authority’s establishment in 1954. General Salah Nasr, who is credited for building the institution and launching a “spy war against Israel”, headed it for only ten years (1957-1967).
Suleiman’s legacy is unique. During his tenure at the EGIA, many Egyptians believe that the principal mandate of the institution changed – from counter-espionage with a focus on Israel to counter-opposition with a focus on Islamists, a major change in institutional dogma. The EGIA reportedly began pursuing opposition figures locally and abroad, coordinating even with Israeli security services and reportedly torturing Egyptian and Arab citizens to extract information for foreign security services, most notably the US Central Intelligence Agency. Orchestrating such acts, Suleiman’s name appeared in many US diplomatic cables, several of which were released by WikiLeaks. One “confidential” cable from the US embassy in Cairo described the relationship as follows:
“In this regard, our intelligence collaboration with Omar Soliman, who is expected in Washington next week, is now probably the most successful element of the relationship.” But the change of dogma and the resulting shift in behaviour implicated Suleiman in a variety of human rights violations. Activists and human rights organisations have accused him and his organisation of ordering or being complicit in torture, extra-judicial killings and extraordinary renditions.
Alleged CIA role
One of the most notable of the aforementioned violations is the case of Talaat Fu‘ad Qassim, an Egyptian refugee in Denmark who was a spokesman for the armed Islamic group Gama’a Islamiyya in the 1990s, and a former member of its governing council. According to Richard Clarke, then the head of counter-terrorism efforts at the US National Security Council, Qassim was taken into custody by US forces and handed over to the EGIA. He has not been seen since. Qassem’s lawyers and family believe that he was executed in 1995.
Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi (Ali Mohammed al-Fakheri) is the second most infamous case under Suleiman. He was a Libyan citizen reportedly captured and interrogated by the CIA, the EGIA, and other security services. The George W Bush administration cited the false information al-Libi gave under torture by Egyptian authorities as evidence of the link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda in the months preceding the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.
When the information was proven to be false, it was a source of great personal embarrassment to Suleiman. Not only had he allegedly tortured an Arab citizen to extract information for the CIA, but he also inadvertently provided justification to the Bush administration for the invasion of Iraq. This is an addition to the apparent incompetence in assessing the information extracted under torture. al-Libi was handed over to the Gaddafi regime in Libya, which Suleiman visited in May 2009. By the time Suleiman’s plane left Libya, al-Libi had allegedly “committed suicide”, the Gaddafi regime announced.
“This is the bloody joke,” a former member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, who was imprisoned with al-Libi in Tripoli’s notorious Abu Salim prison, told me in an interview. “Al-Libi is a religious man. He would never do that. He was killed by the Libyan Internal Security Services as a favour to Suleiman.”
Intelligence and politics
Domestically, Suleiman increased the political role of the EGIA, a move which became quite apparent during the revolution. He led negotiations with various pro-change forces during the 18 days of revolution, including the Muslim Brotherhood, an organisation he had repeatedly accused of spawning terrorism. Suleiman offered the group a political “reform” package if the Brotherhood agreed to disband the sit-in in Tahrir Square. Otherwise, “you will face a brutal military coup”, he told [Ar] revolutionaries in the meeting, according to famed poet Abdul Rahaman Yusuf.
Suleiman mastered co-option, intimidation, deception, and agent-provocateur tactics. And he was quite effective in using those tactics against Egyptian opposition, until the 2011 revolution. In the end, he was undermined by the revolution. He lived long enough to see a political prisoner from the MB as the elected Egyptian president and torture-victims as parliamentarians; still, he was just down not out.
Suleiman was notably not chosen to be among the 19 generals that formed the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. He belonged to a faction within the ruling establishment that believed that Hosni Mubarak should survive at any cost. If not, then an honourable exit, with immunity from prosecution, should be offered to him. This faction did not get its way and this ultimately affected the fate of the EGIA. The department of military intelligence, operating under General Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, was reportedly granted some of EGIA’s responsibilities and extra-judicial powers – most recently the power to arrest civilians (an order which was later rescinded).
Despite this loss, anti-SCAF, pro-Mubarak loyalists considered Suleiman a patriot who did not abandon his leader. For them, he was a rallying figure. “The general [Suleiman] is coming back and he is going to silence all the dogs,” one of his supporters told me in a small rally after Mubarak’s spy chief declared his presidential bid.
This bid was, in fact, one of several attempts made by pro-Mubarak forces to orchestrate a “comeback”. These attempts involved efforts in a variety of areas, including electoral politics. The level of Suleiman’s direct involvement in such attempts, however, remains unknown. But he was without a doubt an active player until the end. During his candidacy, Suleiman threatened to unleash classified information from his “black-box” to foment political chaos. The EGIA had then to release its first ever public statement: a reminder of “Law Number 100 of the Intelligence Service”, which bans political involvement of its members, and the release of classified information.
Despite the potential persistence of his legacy, Suleiman’s death may herald the beginning of a new era. After all, Egypt is now seeing a revolution in transparency, accountability and freedom. Its ultimate test will be whether elected civilians gain meaningful control over the intelligence and security services. Suleiman would have stood strongly and effectively against that core of democratic transition. His death may herald the crumbling of yet another obstacle to the completion of Egypt’s hard-fought transition to civilian democratic rule.