The perfect person to "replace" Mubarak

February 8, 2011

In News

Omar Suleiman, the new Egyptian vice-president championed by the Obama administration as central to an orderly transition, is a long-time ally of Washington, whose diplomats have repeatedly dubbed him President Hosni Mubarak’s “consigliere”.

Dispatches from the US embassy in Cairo, obtained by the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks, consistently refer to the one-time general who until recently headed Egypt’s General Intelligence Service, as key to the bilateral relationship.

He is described as a man with “the full confidence of Mubarak” and commended by Margaret Scobey, the current US ambassador, as a “pragmatist with an extremely sharp analytical mind”.

Mr Mubarak sought to quell anti-regime unrest by making Mr Suleiman his first vice-president on January 29. Until then, the general had been in charge of Egypt’s foremost intelligence agency.

The cables describe how, in practice, he handled every aspect of foreign policy in the Middle East, including negotiations over the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, the Iraq war and the containing of Iranian influence. On all these issues, he was seen as acting in harmony with US interests.

“The ageing Mubarak simply does not have a domestic counterpart to the formidable Omar [Suleiman], his consigliere on foreign policy matters,” observes a May 2006 cable, adding that the intelligence chief is “the most successful element” of the US relationship with Egypt on the Middle East peace process. Another cable praises his “vision and influence”.

Mr Suleiman’s deep suspicion of Iran is noted, with diplomats in Cairo reporting in January 2008 that the intelligence chief had described Tehran as a “significant threat to Egypt”. Iran, he is reported as saying, was “supporting jihad and spoiling peace, and has supported extremists in Egypt previously. If they were to support the Muslim Brotherhood, this would make them ‘our enemy’.”

Mr Suleiman often stressed the threat posed by the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s banned Islamist opposition. But that argument did not always impress US diplomats.

In a November 2005 dispatch, Francis Ricciardone, then US ambassador, wrote: “The Egyptians have a long history of threatening us with the Muslim Brotherhood bogeyman.”

He added: “The best way to counter narrow-minded Islamist politics is to open the system.”

US confidence in Mr Suleiman is tempered by observations that, in spite of being a trusted adviser to Mr Mubarak, he and Aboul Gheit, the foreign minister, “take their marching orders from Mubarak”, as a US diplomat writes in January 2009.

Nor are the descriptions always complimentary. Later in the same dispatch, the author hints at a darker interpretation of the general’s methods: “Omar [Suleiman] and interior minister [Habib] al-Adly keep the domestic beasts at bay, and Mubarak is not one to lose sleep over their tactics.”

Omar Suleiman
Omar Suleiman, a former head of intelligence, is described as a ‘pragmatist with an extremely sharp analytical mind’

The dispatches also disclose that Mr Suleiman has authorised draconian steps to prevent African migrants from entering the Sinai Peninsula en route to Israel, a path trodden by many Sudanese refugees. A November 2007 cable quotes Mr Suleiman as saying that he is preventing “all black people from accessing the Sinai, even as tourists”.

Similarly, memos also reflect the scepticism of other US allies, such as Israel. According to a May 2008 dispatch, Yuval Diskin, the head of Israel’s internal security agency, described a meeting with the Egyptian intelligence chief as having “a good atmosphere swirling with many lies – exactly what is to be expected in the Middle East”.

The cables show that Mr Suleiman’s influence over the Middle East’s most intractable problems extended to Iraq’s domestic insurgency. During an April 2005 meeting with a US diplomat, Mr Suleiman said his agency was in touch with Iraq’s Sunni “resistance” and “was willing to deepen such contacts should the US government concur”.

Mr Suleiman added that these “Iraqis were a mixture of Sunni tribal and former regime elements interested in political participation”.

The cable carries no suggestion that US officials tried to dissuade Mr Suleiman from contact with the insurgents who were, at that time, mounting attacks on US soldiers every month. In the two years that followed, Iraq’s Sunni insurgency abated.

The policy of negotiating with Sunni insurgents was consistent with the Egyptian government’s deep suspicion of Iraq’s Shia majority, with the US embassy saying that Cairo viewed them as being little better than puppets of Iran.

“The general, albeit mistaken, Egyptian viewpoint toward Iraq’s Shia is that they are simply a tool of Tehran,” reads a later cable dated October 16 2005.

First lady thwarted promotion chances in favour of her son, messages show

Omar Suleiman became Egypt’s vice-president in the heat of Cairo’s political crisis, yet he was “deeply hurt” when President Hosni Mubarak broke an earlier pledge to give him the job, according to US diplomatic cables, writes David Blair in London.

Mr Suleiman, the head of Egypt’s General Intelligence Service from 1993 until his naming as the vice-president on January 29, had been viewed as a possible successor to Mr Mubarak for perhaps a decade before his promotion finally came last month.

A May 2007 cable from the US embassy in Cairo noted that Mr Suleiman had “stepped out of the shadows” normally inhabited by intelligence chiefs and “allowed himself to be photographed and his meetings with foreign leaders reported”.

But an “alleged personal friend” reported to the embassy that Mr Suleiman had been “deeply personally hurt” when Mr Mubarak broke a promise to make him vice-president “several years” earlier.

The ambitions of Mr Mubarak’s son, Gamal, might have explained this failure to elevate Mr Suleiman. Over the past year western diplomats have seen Gamal’s chances as receding and argued that Mr Suleiman could well emerge as Mr Mubarak’s successor.

At the time, however, the US embassy believed that a dynastic succession was a real possibility and “conventional wisdom” held that “Gamal wants the job”.

 Suzanne Mubarak
Gamal’s ‘most ardent political patron’ was reported to be his mother, Suzanne Mubarak, Egypt’s first lady

As for Mr Suleiman’s attitude to any hereditary transfer of power, the cable reports the same friend as saying that he “detests the idea of Gamal as president”.

An earlier cable provided a vivid twist to the plot. Gamal’s “most ardent political patron” was reported to be his mother, Suzanne Mubarak, Egypt’s first lady, who was born in the Welsh town of Pontypridd, the daughter of a Welsh nurse and an Egyptian doctor.

Mrs Mubarak’s “power and influence” were the “keys to Gamal’s viability” as a presidential contender, reported the dispatch from April 2006.

In her determination to clear the way for her son, she had prevented her husband from appointing a vice-president, who would probably have been Mr Suleiman.

The embassy reported that according to its sources, “she has kept Mubarak père from naming a vice-president”.

The first lady was a “shrewd political player in her own right”, added a March 2006 cable. This identified Mrs Mubarak as one of the five most influential figures around the president, stressing the need for US diplomats to open contact with her. Mrs Mubarak could, said the report, “strengthen the political reform wing of the leadership”.