Egypt: The Omar Theories
By Steven A. Cook
It is fair to say that Omar Suleiman’s bid to be Egypt’s next president is one of the most unexpected developments in post-Mubarak Egypt. The last time anyone had seen or heard from Suleiman, he appeared on Egyptian television and declared:
Citizens, in these difficult circumstances the country is going through, the President Mohamed Hosni Mubarak has decided to leave his position as president of the Republic, and has entrusted the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to administer the nation’s affairs.
With those 41 words, Hosni Mubarak’s almost three-decade rule came to an ignominious end. Since then Omar Pasha has been a ghost. In the giddy moments and considerable confusion after Mubarak’s flight to Sharm el Sheikh, there was an assumption that the intelligence chief and two-week vice president would be taking a seat on the SCAF. It didn’t happen. He surfaced ever so briefly during Hosni Mubarak’s trial. In a pretrial investigation Suleiman reportedly told prosecutors that the former president “knew of every shot fired” during the uprising. So much for loyalty. In between and since, Suleiman was apparently holed up in his home in Heliopolis. There were rumors in the late fall/early winter of 2011 that he was back at work at the headquarters of the General Intelligence Service, supporting his successor Major General Mourad Muwafie on the Israel-Palestinian file. This was perhaps wishful thinking among the felool—a sign that despite their electoral drubbing, a restoration was possible.
As of Sunday with the spectacle of Suleiman delivering his presidential candidate registration papers (with more than three times the 30,000 required signatures appended to his petition) to the High Election Commission, the restoration seemed not just possible, but maybe even imminent. Suleiman’s decision to contest the presidency was a dramatic twist in a drama filled week in which the Muslim Brotherhood’s number two and widely regarded to be the most powerful man in post-Mubarak Egypt—Khairat al Shater—announced his own run for the presidency and it was revealed that Salafist presidential candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail’s mother held an American passport. Yet Omar Suleiman’s emergence eclipsed all others. Immediately, the conjectures, rumors, and theories attempting to make sense of al Shater’s candidacy gave way to intense speculation about who and what is behind Suleiman’s run.
There is any number of competing explanations for the return of Omar Pasha:
1. Let me caveat before I even begin. I don’t think too many Egyptians actually believe this one, but I’ve heard it and read it so it deserves some attention. Here goes: Omar Suleiman is the Muslim Brotherhood’s solution to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Muslim Brotherhood problem. Not expecting the buzz saw of internal and external criticism resulting from their nomination of Khairat al Shater for president, the Brothers have struck some sort of deal with Suleiman, calculating that the former intelligence chief and vice president will win. This will relieve the Brothers of the responsibilities and risks of controlling parliament, the presidency, and likely the government. This argument hinges on the fact that during the uprising Suleiman sought to negotiate with the Brotherhood’s senior leadership rather than the revolutionaries who instigated the demonstrations. Although Suleiman’s outreach to the Brothers during those eighteen days of national upheaval demonstrated his inability to grasp the political dynamics of that moment, it was a stunningly accurate assessment of which group would likely play an influential role in Egypt’s future. Be that as it may, it seems unlikely that the Brotherhood would seek a solution to their political problems through a deal with Suleiman. Why enable even a partial restoration of the previous regime against which the Brothers have been agitating since the 1950s, especially when power seems to be well within the Islamists’ grasp? Once more, the ferocious rhetorical response to Suleiman’s candidacy from Brotherhood figures including Khairat al Shater who warned that the former vice president was a “New Mubarak” suggests that the Brothers see Omar Pasha as a grave threat to their political project. Things are not always what they seem to be and there is a lot of “game playing” going on in Egypt as one informant told me recently, but there is no reason to put any stock in the MB-Omar nexus theory.
2. Omar Suleiman’s candidacy represents the Egyptian intelligence community’s bid for supremacy in post-Mubarak Egypt. Not only possible, but also entirely plausible. It is important to remember that throughout the uprising and the transition, politics, street demonstrations, and periodic spasms of violence have buffeted and taxed the ministries of defense and interior, which are rivals anyway. Yet the General Intelligence Service and Military Intelligence have, to the extent that one can see into these opaque organizations, remained intact and more than capable of carrying out their functions, which include both domestic and foreign intelligence. In many ways, the uncertainty of post-uprising Egypt is an environment in which intel operators well-versed in the dark arts of manipulation, denial and deception, as well as intimidation, thrive. The GIS has its own organizational interests, views, and goals that may conflict with Egypt’s other primary political actors—the SCAF, parliament, Muslim Brotherhood, and the revolutionary groups who may not command the authority and resources necessary to challenge intel’s bid for leadership.
What about the military intelligence? One of the great myths of Egypt’s transition is that the SCAF is in control of the country, its ministries, and all of the branches of the military. Field Marshal Tantawi et al certainly wanted Egyptians and observers to believe that. Throughout the transition, however, the Ministry of Defense has found itself at odds with the Ministry of Interior, demonstrated an inability to compel civilian politicians to comply consistently with its orders, and utterly failed to provide order, coherence, and leadership to the transition. Under these circumstances, it is entirely possible that Suleiman, his former employees at GIS, and the officers from his former branch of service may believe now is a propitious moment for the intelligence people to make a move and secure “the chair” for one of their own, given how the SCAF has made a mess of things.
Rating: Possible and Entirely Plausible
3. It has become accepted wisdom in certain circles, particularly the media, that Omar Suleiman is the SCAF’s candidate. There is reason to believe this. He is a military officer with the rank of Lieutenant General. He saw combat in Yemen and Sinai in both 1967 and 1973. As noted above, Suleiman’s statements during the Mubarak investigation/trial demonstrated some political deft and deference to the SCAF, letting the military off the hook. This stood in stark contrast to the former president who, in a deposition before trial, claimed that the military was responsible for events in Egypt beginning the evening of January 28, 2011 (the Day of Rage), which would make Tantawi culpable for the more than 800 deaths during the ensuing two weeks. Most importantly, if the SCAF wanted to put forward a military figure with political experience, a potential reservoir of popular support, and a history of keeping the Islamists in their place, Omar Suleiman is their only choice.
Yet there is something too neat about the “Suleiman is the military’s candidate” theory. True, he is an officer, but he hasn’t worn a uniform in decades, was not in the chain of command, and was noticeably left off the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, though that may be a political asset at this point. There are also persistent, but never verified, rumors that military officers targeted Suleiman in an unsuccessful assassination attempt during the uprising. In addition, why would the military want Omar Pasha? Ostensibly, he is one of them and will protect their interests, but he seems to have a base of power independent of the Ministry of Defense. The officers can’t control Suleiman and he likely has a file on everyone in uniform from colonel to the Field Marshal. Mubarak was more dependent on the military than many suspected and acted that way, working hard to ensure their senior command’s parochial concerns like the flow of aid from the United States and core interests in stability and the military’s place in Egypt’s political system. As much as the NDP became the vehicle for the Mubaraks and their immediate cronies, it was, according to one of Mubarak’s top lieutenants, “a circus.” It sounds cliché, but the military is the backbone of the regime—the political system that was founded in the 1950s after the Free Officers’ coup.
Finally, if the fix was in for a military officer to fill the presidency, why did the military wait so long before Suleiman was put forward? Likely because he is not their candidate. Ahmed Shafiq—Mubarak’s last prime minister and a former air force officer is more likely the military’s preferred candidate.
Rating: Plausible, but not as much as everyone thinks
So why is Omar Suleiman running? Perhaps there is no better explanation than blind ambition and opportunism. Suleiman is somewhat different than the caricatures of him. For example, he is more thoughtful on foreign policy than one might suspect, but unless he had a change of heart over the last 15 months, he is hardly a progressive on domestic politics. He was, in part, responsible for Egypt’s alleged stability during 18 of Mubarak’s 29 years 3 months, and 28 days in power. Suleiman, no doubt, believes that he can return stability and security to Egypt’s streets, providing a critical component for an economic recovery, but can he? No matter where they stand on the important issues, it seems that many Egyptians have rejected Omar Pasha’s methods, which, if the uprising was any measure, proved to be largely ineffective against millions of people who desperately wanted change.
Steven A. Cook is the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. A leading expert on Arab and Turkish politics, he is author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square.