Former Egyptian intelligence chief dies in the US

Omar Suleiman ran "state within a state," saw Israel as ally in war against Islamists, expert tells ‘Post.’

July 20, 2012 04:41
3 minute read.
Posters of Omar Suleiman, Egyptian

Posters of Omar Suleiman, Egyptian_370. (photo credit: Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters)

Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s former intelligence chief who was a pillar of the Mubarak regime, died aged 76 while undergoing a medical examination in the US on Thursday.

Born in Upper Egypt in 1936, Suleiman enrolled in the country’s Military Academy at age 18. He rose through the ranks, and took part in the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War against Israel.

In 1993, after being appointed by president Hosni Mubarak to head the all-powerful General Intelligence Directorate, Suleiman focused his attention on dismantling Islamist organizations in Egypt.

He stepped briefly into the limelight last year when Mubarak’s made him his vice president to try to end the Arab Spring uprising against his three-decade rule. The gamble failed when the Egyptians who had massed in the streets to demand Mubarak step down rejected the political concessions Suleiman offered to appease them.

Many protesters were incensed when Suleiman suggested they were not ready for democracy.

“My heart hurts for him. He believed in the peace treaty for Egypt – not for Israel – but Egypt,” Labor MK Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, a former Israeli defense minister and close associate of Suleiman, said after the death was announced.

Suleiman enjoyed close relations with senior Israeli defense chiefs over the years, coordinating closely with Jerusalem on issues pertaining to regional stability and acting as a bridge between Israel and the Palestinians.

“He was a patriot. He had incredible knowledge of the world. If we turned to him for something, there was never a time that he didn’t get back to us on the same day,” Ben- Eliezer said.

But Suleiman’s alliance with the Israeli defense community was just one part of the spy chief’s uncompromising war on Islamists in Egypt and in the region, Dr. Mordechai Kedar, a senior Middle East expert from Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, told The Jerusalem Post.

“He saw us as allies against extreme Islamists. We fought them and so did he,” Kedar said.

“Egyptian intelligence was like the Mossad and the Shin Bet put together. It handled foreign and domestic intelligence.

This was a very strong organization, a state within a state. It was the main body that safeguarded the stability of the presidency, and then the state – in that order,” he added.

Suleiman met with Mubarak every day, a privilege enjoyed by no other minister.

“As head of intelligence, the president’s ear was by his mouth. His organization never had any budget problems,” Kedar said.

Suleiman’s war against opponents of the Mubarak regime was wholly above the law, and often involved torture of suspects “to get them to sign things they did and didn’t do.

No court could have dealt with the intelligence body, because it was beyond the law. This was the organization and this was Suleiman,” Kedar stressed.

The intelligence chief operated in the shadows for many years before stepping into the light, though his presence could be felt everywhere in Egypt. The intelligence agency relied on a highly effective system of informers. It also enjoyed its own internal communications system that was practically immune to eavesdropping.

“The organization was basically autonomous,” Kedar said.

“He symbolized a small, secular layer in Egyptian society that was wealthy and corrupt.

That’s why it was anti-Islamic.”

Shortly before his death, Suleiman expressed concerns that the whole of Egypt would come under the dangerous sway of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“Many people felt that the state is going to the Muslim Brotherhood – in parliament, in government and now the presidency,” Suleiman told Reuters during the recent election campaign.

In the past, Suleiman had been described as a powerful presence in any room. Prof.

Hillel Frisch, also from the Begin-Sadat Center, said, “He speaks little and asks questions with much authority.”

In the 1990s, Suleiman was tasked with stemming a major terrorism campaign launched by the al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya group, which killed hundreds of members of the Egyptian security forces and foreign tourists in a string of attacks. In 2003, al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya renounced terrorism, and other Islamist elements were weakened or forced to disband due to Suleiman’s efforts.

The intelligence chief was extremely well versed in the affairs of both Israel and the Palestinians, Dr. Ely Karmon, a senior researcher at the International Institute for Counter- Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, told The Jerusalem Post last year.

Suleiman knew “the Israeli and Palestinian arenas better than anyone in Egypt,” Karmon said.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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