A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

‘Omar Suleiman: What Does His Run Mean?

This is one of the better Internet comments on ‘Omar Suleiman, in part because it doesn't require as much explanation to outsiders as most do. The caption reads "‘Omar Suleiman" but the "leiman" overlaps with the same Arabic letters in the phrase "Liman Turah" — Turah Prison, the notorious home for political prisoners outside of Cairo. It captures the darker side of Suleiman's reputation.

Come to think of it, if there's a brighter side to Suleiman's reputation, it must be classified. David Kenner at Foreign Policy sums up the man's career with links to some of the more well-known allegations against him. He was not a man who operated in the daylight, and he seems an odd choice for a political candidate. I heard him speak once, even met him briefly, but the speech was predictably off the record, so I can't comment on it here, though it was not about intelligence matters but about his role as mediator on Palestinian-Israeli issues.

Both Suleiman and Field Marshal Tantawi have denied that Suleiman is SCAF's candidate. While Suleiman held a general's rank and rose through the Army, the General Intelligence Director's job was a nominally civilian one. His power in the Mubarak regime came from his close personal relationship with Mubarak, not from the military. General Intelligence reports directly to the Presidency and thus was not under the influence of either the Ministry of Defense (the Armed Forces) or the Ministry of the Interior (which ran State Security and the multiple police agencies). While a key part of the security apparatus, he was not necessarily the only power center.

From a conventional political analysis Suleiman would not seem to be an ideal candidate. Until the last decade or so his photo was never published in newspapers. Even his name rarely appeared until he emerged as interlocutor with Israel and the Palestinians. If he's not the Army's candidate, why is he being treated as such a serious contender?

A common term in the past year has been fallul, the "remnants" of the old regime. But Suleiman is not a "remnant" of the old regime: he's more like the core of the old regime. A Wikileaks cable from a US diplomat famously called him "Mubarak's consigliere." He presumably appeals to those members of the Armed Forces, police, security services, and others who feel the need for a strong hand to restore order and maintain stability.

When the Soviet Union fell, Western observers were startled to see some demonstrators displaying photos of Joseph Stalin. But if the 20th century taught anything, it taught that there is, for some people at least, a temptation towards choosing a strongman when society is in flux. The man on the white horse, the enforcer who will make the trains run on time. Though the 20th century also taught that this approach doesn't work out well, it may be at work here.

And I have already noted in earlier postings that the man's well-known antipathy to the Muslim Brotherhood (if "antipathy" is defined as "throwing all of them in jail") makes him a Great Iron-Fisted Hope for some who fear the rise of the Brotherhood. But at what cost?

Some have said that his identity as one of the rare Upper Egyptians in a former regime dominated by men from he Delta is one of his strengths (Suleiman comes from Qena, near Luxor, and like most Upper Egyptians has strong "tribal" ties with many in the region). But the Upper Egyptian connection is not going to win any elections.

It is, of course, possible that everyone is reading too much into Suleiman's candidacy. Perhaps he will go nowhere. But if there is about to be a wave of disqualifications (Khairat al-Shater's pardon is too recent, Abu Isma‘il's mother is American, etc.), many will suspect that the fix is in. But the reaction to Suleiman's candidacy is also fierce, and the poster above is only a mild example. The hydra-head of the former regime seems to still have some life in it. The question at this point is how much.

I think it would be unwise for Americans and Israelis to look at Suleiman's record as a friend and collaborator of both countries as a plus. For most Egyptians, he was a "collaborator" in the negative sense of that word, and is seen as doing the will of the Americans and, worse, the Israelis. In the long run, that perception just fuels anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiments, which are already strong enough.

As this campaign develops, perhaps the mystery of why Suleiman is running will become clearer. But the sense that the old regime is still struggling, Rasputin-like, back to life will linger so long as figures like Suleiman remain players in the center of the public stage.

1 comment:

David Mack said...

Ah, yes. He's not a rebellious romantic. But he helped keep order on the streets. Jobs were more plentiful under the stable, if politically, stagnant conditions before last year's eruptions. There will be many Egyptian business people and others who will consider a vote for stability. Of course, the results might well be even more street violence, and I agree that having been a reliable link to the US and Israel won't help him at the polls.