Suleiman: Egypt’s strongman who kept Islamists in check

Analysis: “Suleiman knows the Israeli and Palestinian arenas better than anyone in Egypt,” says Dr. Ely Karmon of the IDC.

January 30, 2011 02:46
2 minute read.
Ahmed Aboul Gheit and Omar Suleiman of Egypt.

gheit and suleiman_311. (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)


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Omar Suleiman, the chief of the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate who was appointed vice president by besieged President Hosni Mubarak on Saturday, is a powerful figure who has kept Islamists in check at home while managing contacts at the highest level with Israel, Fatah and Hamas abroad.

Prof. Hillel Frisch, an expert on Islamic politics at Bar-Ilan’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, described Suleiman as a veteran and highly effective security chief, who made a powerful impression on those who met him.

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“He speaks little and asks questions with much authority,” Frisch said.

Within Egypt, Suleiman, 74, is far more popular than Mubarak, and has escaped the widespread anger over corruption, maintaining a clean image.

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

In 1993, he was appointed by Mubarak to head the all-powerful General Intelligence Directorate, which has been described by Egyptian journalist Issandr Amrani as an organization that “combines the intelligence-gathering elements of the CIA, the counterterrorism role of the FBI, the protection duties of the Secret Service, and the high-level diplomacy of the State Department.”

Following his appointment, 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 throughout the 1990s. In 2003, al-Gammal al-Islamiyya renounced terrorism, and other Islamist elements had been weakened or forced to disband by Suleiman’s war against them.

On a regional level, Suleiman is Egypt’s most important envoy to Israel, Fatah and Hamas. He is extremely well versed in the affairs of both Israel and the Palestinians, according to Dr. Ely Karmon, a senior researcher at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.

Suleiman oversaw numerous mediation efforts aimed at getting Fatah and Hamas to agree to a power-sharing deal over the past two decades.

At the same time, Egypt’s secular regime has always regarded secular Fatah as a natural ally, and remained suspicious of Hamas and its Islamist ideology. Under Suleiman’s auspices, Egypt provided military training for Fatah’s security forces, with a view to enabling it to keep control of the Gaza Strip, prior to Hamas’s 2007 coup.

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

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