A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, July 19, 2012

‘Omar Suleiman, 1936-2012: A Spymaster Departs

At the End, He Made the Announcement
Everyone had their obituaries for Husni Mubarak written a month ago when he was reported to be clinically dead. He recovered, but the man who served him in so many ways and in the end became his Vice President and then, in a final service, announced Mubarak was stepping down, ‘Omar Suleiman has died in a US hospital.

Just this spring, he had sought to run for President, but was disqualified for insufficient petition signatures.  If had run and won, Egypt would have a different sort of constitutional crisis.

More recently, after Muhammad Morsi won the Presidency, he left the country. There were Egyptian reports that he had asked for asylum in the UAE; he denied these. We now learn he was in the US, apparently at the Cleveland Clinic, for medical tests, and died unexpectedly.

The obits will no doubt tell all the usual stories,  how Mubarak credited him with saving his life in Addis Ababa during an assassination attempt and trusted him thereafter as he trusted no one else; how he gradually emerged from the shadows (for years, his photo never appeared, and his name rarely, in the newspapers) to become Egypt's first Vice President in 30 years, and in that iconic scene shown above, announced — seemingly unwillingly and with "the man behind ‘Omar Suleiman" looking sternly from over his shoulder, that Mubarak had "decided" to step down.

They will mention that he was Egypt's liaison with Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and they will mention the allegations of his role in renditions. But they will not tell all the stories, because none of us know all the stories. Whatever else ‘Omar Suleiman was, he was a professional intelligence man, and like any such, many of his successes were never announced. Because he moved in that shadowy realm where Western intelligence agencies, Arab intelligence agencies, the Palestinian security services and Mossad all collaborate and deny they are doing so, we will probably never know the best stories.

I met him once, at a background briefing in DC. He said what you would expect him to say. He gave nothing away. I got little sense of the man himself. You weren't supposed to.

Though he held the rank of Major General and had served as head of Egypt's Military Intelligence before heading its General Intelligence Service (one of only a few men to head both the military and civilian intelligence bodies), he dressed in civilian clothes as head of General Intelligence.

His role as Vice President and the man who announced Mubarak's departure was his most visible role, but compared to running Egyptian intelligence for a decade and a half, that was a fleeting fame. His career was not aimed at fame, but was lived in the shadows. Perhaps both the best and worst assessments we can give are the same: he was first and last a man of the mukhabarat, and he appears to have been good at it.

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