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Meet Omar Suleiman

The vice president who could be Egypt’s next leader

Marc Tracy
January 31, 2011
Omar Suleiman and Prime Minister Netanyahu last November.(Moshe Milner /GPO/Getty IMages)
Omar Suleiman and Prime Minister Netanyahu last November.(Moshe Milner /GPO/Getty IMages)

We don’t know who is going to end up on top. We do know, however, that if Egypt continues its trend of rule-by-strongman (a 60-year-long trend), then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s successor will in all likelihood not be his son, Gamal—he is, as Judith Miller told me earlier, “toast” (The New Yorker’s Joshua Hammer seems to agree)—and will instead be the man he appointed as his first-ever vice president, Omar Suleiman.

In many ways, Suleiman is Mubarak without all the baggage: A little younger and not, you know, the same guy who has been the authoritarian leader for the past 30 years; but someone who would govern, both domestically and especially internationally, the same way Mubarak has, and who would enjoy the same (or more) respect of the military. He could be the way the “Kefaya” movement gets its “Enough!” moment vis-à-vis Mubarak but also the way the United States and Israel get their stability; furthermore, the fact that he is in his 70s might make it easier for everyone to see his rule as a transitional stabilizer to a truer democracy rather than as a fullblown continuation of strongman-rule. On the other hand, Suleiman would indisputably be another strongman, and therefore perhaps unacceptable to the protestors, and therefore perhaps not long for the ruling world. (Ever hear of Mehdi Barzargan or Alexander Kerensky? Both moderates, the former was Iran’s prime minister for much of 1979, the latter was Russia’s for much of 1917. See my point?) We don’t know. But for now, it’s worth learning about him.

Mubarak’s appointment of Suleiman, 74, a former general, represented a concession to Egypt’s powerful military (a notion confirmed by Mubarak’s simultaneous appointment of a former air force commander to the prime ministership). Suleiman has run Egypt’s military General Intelligence Service, a.k.a. Mukhabarat, since 1993. He enjoys close ties with higher-ups in the United States and Israel, and shares their foreign policies: He is fearful of Iran; apt to continue the cold but very real peace with Israel, complete with recognition and cooperation when it comes to Gaza (despite which, even Hamas respects him); and against Islamic radicalism. He is Egypt’s pointman on Israeli-Palestinian talks, counter-terrorism, and even dealing with Iran and Syria. He favors suits over military wear, and is quite suave.

“Suleiman knows the Israeli and Palestinian arenas better than anyone in Egypt,” says one Israeli counter-terrorism expert. According to The Jerusalem Post—whose profile of Suleiman makes for good reading if you want to understand why Israel might prefer his succession the most—he is far more popular in Egypt than Mubarak, and, unlike Mubarak, is not seen as corrupt. The latter likely remains true; it is less clear whether the gap between Mubarak’s and Suleiman’s favorability ratings has not shrunk over the past week of protests.

“Omar Soliman and Interior Minister al-Adly keep the domestic beasts at bay,” reads a U.S. diplomatic cable from 2009 released by WikiLeaks, “and Mubarak is not one to lose sleep over their tactics.” The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer reports that Suleiman was in-charge, from Egypt’s side, of CIA renditions, in which terror suspects were shipped to Egypt and tortured.

It is not inconceivable that his appointment and the dispatching of the Army to the streets together actually represented the beginning of a power transition. “Most Suleiman supporters,” wrote Issadr Amrani, “recognize that to gain the presidency he would most likely have to carry out a coup—perhaps a soft, constitutional one, but a coup nonetheless. (It is possible, one analyst told me, that ‘the day Mubarak dies there will be tanks on the street.’) Strange though it sounds, many Egyptians would find such a coup acceptable.” Amrani gets prescience points: He published the above in 2009, presumably without having read this U.S. diplomatic cable from 2007, released by WikiLeaks, in which it is noted that Suleiman began stepping out of the shadows, and was long rumored to be the eventual filler for the long-vacant vice-presidential slot. (Every Getty picture of Suleiman—there are only 39 going back to 2002, as compared to 559 for Mubarak going back to 1976—shows him with either a top Israeli or a top Palestinian Authority official.)

The reason Mubarak had never picked a vice president, goes the Egyptian joke (as reported by Amos Elon), is that he couldn’t find anyone dumber than himself. More likely, he just wanted to make it clear he was in charge and would continue to be so. A quiz: What was Mubarak’s position before he became president? If you guessed “vice president,” then congratulations.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.

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