A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Backgrounder: Egypt, Gaza and Omar Suleiman

One of our goals with this MEI Editor's Blog is to provide solid background for analysis of the Middle East; in the cacophany of polemical debate, it is easy sometimes to lose sight of the facts.

In all the reams of commentary about Israel's recent Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, only peripheral attention has often been paid to Egypt's difficult quandaries and efforts to maintain a ceasefire. About a year ago I wrote a commentary for the MEI webpage that touched on some of these issues, at the time of the breach in the Egyptian-Gaza border fence, but the situation has been exacerbated by the Israeli operation and the worsening situation on the ground. Many in the Arab world blame Egypt for not opening the border crossing at Rafah, while many in Israel blame Egypt for looking the other way as arms were smuggled into Gaza through a network of tunnels. The quandary faced by Egypt is a difficult one, since the Egyptian "street" is itself unhappy with the government's position. This is intended as an introduction to the background of the issue, and a look at the man who handles Egypt's security relations with both the Israelis and the Palestinians, Omar Suleiman. It's the first of a series of backgrounder postings I hope to do on this site.

Gaza and Egypt

Historically, Gaza has long had links with Egypt. It is the traditional gateway to Palestine from Egypt, as the Egyptian town of al-`Arish is the historical gateway to Egypt from Palestine. From 1948 to 1967, Gaza was administered by Egypt under the ceasefire agreements ending the Israeli War of Independence, and many Egyptian educational institutions founded branches in Gaza.

Despite the historic links, Egypt has never been comfortable with Gaza. The reasons are simple enough: there are 1.5 million people in Gaza's 350 square kilometers, versus perhaps half a million in the whole of Egypt's Sinai peninsula, with some 60,000 square kilometers. Egypt sees Gaza as a potential threat to the security of the Sinai, and there are suspicions that the terrorist bombings in the "Sinai riviera" resort towns of Sharm al-Sheikh in 2005 and Dhahab in 2006 were carried out by infiltrators from Gaza aiming at Israeli tourists.

Add to this the fact that Hamas's dominance in Gaza has never sat comfortably with the Egyptian government, since Hamas sprang from the Gaza Muslim Brotherhood, itself founded by the Egyptian branch of that group, which the government considers subversive. Leaving aside the judgment on the Egyptian Brotherhood, Hamas' interests in Gaza rarely coincide with Egypt's.

Israeli commentators and their allies sometimes blame Egypt for the arms smuggling that has certainly taken place into Gaza, and the network of tunnels is well known. There are no doubt solid grounds for criticism, and Egypt could probably do better, but it is important to recall that under the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, "Area C," the eastern Sinai, is demilitarized. In 2005, preparing to withdraw from Gaza, the Israeli Knesset amended the peace treaty to allow Egypt to station 750 border guards along the Egypt-Gaza border. Since those guards must sleep and have time off duty, perhaps a third of that number is available on any given watch. Although there are indications that Israel has tacitly allowed Egypt to further increase the numbers, the peace treaty itself limits the forces Cairo can deploy.

Nor can even an authoritarian state like Egypt completely ignore the public opinion of the Egyptian populace. When the barrier wall was breached in early 2008 and hundreds of thousands of Gazans crossed into Egypt, there was much popular support for keeping the crossings open. And during the long siege since Israel blocked most access to Gaza from the Israeli side, there has been growing sentiment in the Arab world for opening Rafah. The pressures are real and create a quandary for the Egyptian government, which fears the impact of an open Rafah crossing on the security of Sinai and perhaps Egypt proper.

Omar Suleiman

The man tasked with dealing with this Solomonic quandary is Lt. Gen. Omar ('Umar) Suleiman, head of Egyptian General Intelligence and Minister without Portfolio in the Egyptian Cabinet. Suleiman is rarely profiled by the Western media, though he is a key player in Israeli-Palestinian security issues. A week ago the Israeli daily Haaretz profiled him in the context of Gaza ceasefire negotiations, and occasionally there have been interviews or profiles elsewhere, but he has not a well-known figure. He gave a briefing here at MEI a while back, but it was off the record, and I respect that here.

The Haaretz article captures the main points about the man: he has been head of Egyptian General Intelligence since 1991, but only since he began to shuttle between Israel and the Palestinians, and between Hamas and Fatah, has he been publicly mentioned in the Egyptian media or had his photograph published.

Since President Husni Mubarak credits him with saving Mubarak's life during an assassination attempt in Addis Ababa in 1995 (Suleiman insisted on using an armored limousine), he has become a senior confidant of the President. He is sometimes mentioned as a possible successor to Mubarak if Gamal Mubarak does not succeed. (On the succession issue, see this piece at the MEI website.)

Appropriately for a intelligence professional, not a lot is known about his military career, as the gaps in his Wikipedia biography indicate; he fought in the 1967 and 1973 wars, but no one seems to know in what capacity. The Haaretz article quotes his Israeli intelligence interlocutors as being uncertain whether he started out in the artillery or another branch. He rose to head Military Intelligence and then, in 1991, became head of General Intelligence, the powerful civilian arm; he is believed to be the first man to hold both (sometimes rival) posts in succession. As a member of the Cabinet he holds a rank not held by intelligence chiefs since the Nasser era. And in a government in which the President and many other senior figures come from the Delta, he is from Qena in Upper Egypt, a traditionally neglected and underdeveloped part of the country (and, often, the subject of regional jokes in the rest of Egypt).

Intelligence Links

The nature of the intelligence field and the natural secrecy of Middle Eastern governments have combined to keep an air of mystery around the intelligence cooperation among governments in the region -- especially when cooperation with Israel is involved -- but it is clear that Egyptian Intelligence, and particularly Suleiman personally, has worked closely with Israel's intelligence services -- Mossad, the General Security Service or Shin Bet, and Military Intelligence -- as well as with the US CIA, DIA and other agencies and, in recent years, with the multiple intelligence services of the Palestinian Authority (which followed the Middle Eastern model of multiple, competing, and often overlapping security agencies). By default, Suleiman has also become the main intermediary between Fatah and Hamas, though he is known to be personally opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood at home and, by extension, no friend of Hamas in Gaza.

If the Gaza ceasefire holds, and that probably depends more on Israel and Hamas than on any Egyptian player, Suleiman's diplomacy will probably be one of the conduits through which deals are made and understandings reached. (It should be acknowledged that, whatever Suleiman's accomplishments in international diplomacy, many Egyptians fear Egyptian General Intelligence and its power at home, where it has wielded much influence since the Nasser era.)

1 comment:

George M said...

Sir, While your fine article highlighted some of our shortcomings, I missed the
nexus between isolating a nuclear Shiite Iran (read: Persians) and the close relationship we maintain with Sunni Oil-producing countries.

OPEC doesn't want yet another rougue country/partner.

If there's any hope for peace at all, we need to take a
less-than-linear approach and reexamine the term "center of gravity" as it applies to the tribal issues, religions, as well as peace and stability.