Former Egyptian spy chief Omar Suleiman dies at 76
CAIRO -- Omar Suleiman, Egypt's former spy chief and a confidant of deposed leader Hosni Mubarak, has died in the U.S., months after his unsuccessful presidential bid to restore the old guard to power following a national revolution, state TV reported Thursday.
"He was fine. It came suddenly while he was having medical tests in Cleveland," Hussein Kamal, a Suleiman aide who did not give a cause of death, told Reuters.
Suleiman, 76, epitomized the police state that repressed Egypt for three decades. He was a Washington ally on countering terrorism and a key negotiator with Palestinians and Israelis. Hastily named vice president in the final days of Mubarak's rule, Suleiman was overwhelmed, failing to grasp the ideals of the uprising that ultimately forced the military to seize power in February 2011.
Aftert that, Suleiman disappeared from public view for months, resurfacing as a presidential candidate in a race polarized by Islamists and remnants of the Mubarak regime. His campaign ended in April when the national election commission ruled that he lacked enough authorized petition signatures on his registration form.
Much of his campaign centered on warning that Islamists wanted to turn Egypt into a religious state. Mohamed Morsi, a candidate for the Muslim Brotherhood, was elected president in June.
A well-tailored spy who was credited with saving Mubarak's life in a 1995 assassination attempt in Ethiopia, Suleiman had been criticized by human rights groups for allowing his vast intelligence network to torture suspected Islamic militants. He had close relations with the CIA, especially following the 9/11 attacks in America.
"When called upon by other nations to assist in intelligence operations, Suleiman's Mukhabarat [intelligence agency] has shown itself willing to take into custody and interrogate Egyptian and non-Egyptian persons, and those interrogations have included torture," John Sifton, a former Human Rights Watch researcher who specialized on rendition and detention issues involving Egypt, told The Times last year.
"He is directly implicated [in torture], both as a member of the regime and ... he headed the Mukhabarat."
Suleiman was born in the poor Egyptian town of Qena. He attended a military academy and distinguished himself in the Arab-Israeli wars in 1967 and 1973. He was named military intelligence chief in 1991, when Egypt cooperated with U.S. forces to expel Saddam Hussein's Iraqi army from Kuwait. He became Egypt's security chief in 1993 and was indispensable to Mubarak, who trusted him with Palestinian-Israeli negotiations and other sensitive international diplomacy.
He was often mentioned as a possible successor to Mubarak. That talk faded in later years when Mubarak's son, Gamal, now on trial on charges of financial corruption, was frequently named as the heir apparent. Some analysts suggest that Suleiman, despite his years in the military, may have become estranged from the armed forces and its top commander, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.
"Suleiman was always a bridge between the military wing of the regime and the civil wing. He was the military man who was most accepted among the civil elite," said Ziad Akl, a senior analyst at the Al-Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies in Cairo. But at some point during the 18 days of the revolution, he said, there was a point of conflict between Suleiman and Tantawi and the dominance of the military eventually took over.
"The acceptance of Suleiman as president was very far-fetched for the military. The military may have felt that Suleiman would betray them in a sense for Gamal Mubarak's business cronies," Akl said.
In his brief tenure as Hosni Mubarak's only vice president, Suleiman often appeared uncomfortable, a spy forced into the limelight of a revolution he couldn't stop. He appeared pale and shaken when he stood before a microphone on Feb. 11, 2011, and announced that Mubarak had stepped down. He offered to become acting president but was rebuffed, and the military took control.
"The question now is will President Morsi attend his funeral?" Akl said. "Protocol says he should. On one hand, he can't ignore this protocol as president, but he will have a backlash from the [Muslim] Brotherhood and [the] revolution because Suleiman was openly against the revolution."
-- Jeffrey Fleishman. Special correspondent Reem Abdellatif contributed to this report.
Photo: Omar Suleiman. Credit: Nasser Nasser / Associated Press