Torture-Loving Egyptian Spymaster Returns

" ... Egypt’s intelligence services — the mukhabarat — have long been known for the use of torture and domestic surveillance, for rigging elections, and for an abiding hatred of the Islamists who constitute Mr. Suleiman’s chief campaign opponents. And since the collapse of the internal security services during the revolt against Mr. Mubarak, the mukhabarat have taken on an even larger domestic role. ... "

 

Election Is a New Start for an Aide to Mubarak

By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK

New York Times, April 12, 2012

Omar Suleiman

CAIRO — Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s former spy chief and briefly its vice president, had all but vanished from the scene. Since surrendering power to a council of generals on behalf of President Hosni Mubarak more than a year ago, Mr. Suleiman, 74, had appeared in public just once: on the ritual pilgrimage to Mecca that Muslims are asked to complete before they die, being pushed in a wheelchair.

Then this week, as Mr. Suleiman burst back into public view with a presidential campaign of his own, it became clear that he never went very far after all. Gatekeepers at intelligence headquarters still refer visitors to his office inside. He still rides in an official car, surrounded by military security, to his luxury villa nearby.

His presidential campaign is also being managed by his longtime chief of staff in the intelligence service, apparently from inside its headquarters. And some say that may explain how Mr. Suleiman collected, in just 48 hours, the requisite 30,000 notarized statements of support to qualify his candidacy.

A former general, Mubarak confidant and close ally of Washington, he was a silent pillar behind the scenes of the old government. He fully emerged into the public eye only in Mr. Mubarak’s last days, when Mr. Mubarak appointed him to be his emissary to the opposition and his chosen successor.

Until this week, he seemed likely to be remembered mainly for the intrigue surrounding his short goodbye. He read a 30-second statement that Mr. Mubarak had handed power to a military council, with a burly military officer looking over shoulder — to help ensure he stayed on script, many assumed.

But that officer, legendary here as “The Man Behind Omar Suleiman,” was Hussein Kamal Sharif — the same chief of staff who is now managing Mr. Suleiman’s campaign.

With the military rulers set to turn over power after presidential elections beginning next month, Mr. Suleiman’s sudden re-emergence from the shadows of the fallen government has spurred fear — and, in some precincts, hope — at the prospect of a new strongman coming to power. Rivals have accused his old-regime allies of plotting voter fraud to put him in office. Islamists have called for a large demonstration on Friday to protest his return. And on Thursday, the Islamist-dominated Parliament passed a law that would bar him and other top Mubarak officials from competing in the presidential race, if the legislation is signed by Egypt’s ruling generals and upheld in court.

On Thursday, in his first interview as a candidate, Mr. Suleiman took aim squarely at the Islamists. He declared that he had entered the race mainly to beat back the Brotherhood, which he suggested would turn Egypt into a “religious state.”

“I felt fear and panic for the future,” he told the newspaper Al Fajr.

As for his relationship with the military council, he said that “in private communications I offered them the experience and capabilities I had, to help Egypt overcome some of the crisis it was going through.” But he acted as a volunteer, he said. “The military council never assigned me to do anything.”

Still, the campaign’s deep and continuing ties to the Egyptian intelligence services raise the most pointed questions yet about the fairness and credibility of the vote, set to begin May 23. Egypt’s intelligence services — the mukhabarat — have long been known for the use of torture and domestic surveillance, for rigging elections, and for an abiding hatred of the Islamists who constitute Mr. Suleiman’s chief campaign opponents. And since the collapse of the internal security services during the revolt against Mr. Mubarak, the mukhabarat have taken on an even larger domestic role, said Heba Morayef, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.

“The involvement of the mukhabarat is not only illegal, but it will also seriously endanger public faith in the fairness of the elections,” Ms. Morayef said, calling it “the kiss of death” for Egypt’s transition.

But Mr. Sharif, the campaign manager, brushed off such concerns. Asked if it was inappropriate for the officials of the intelligence service to support a presidential candidate, he said it was “a matter of personal opinion.”

The intelligence services as an institution had “nothing to do” with Mr. Suleiman’s campaign, he said, and, as for his own role, “it is a matter of personal freedom and choice.”

Holding court from his regular table at a restaurant near the intelligence headquarters, Mr. Sharif said he soon planned to open a separate campaign office outside the intelligence building. (He said he had already formally left the intelligence service, although a visiting journalist found him there.)

As he spoke, a senior judge of Egypt’s administrative court sent over to his table a slice of cream cake.

For more than a decade before last year’s revolt, Mr. Suleiman had been considered a top contender to become Egypt’s next president.

But as Mr. Mubarak’s closest adviser, Mr. Suleiman was always a rival to the defense minister, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who was a few years ahead of Mr. Suleiman at the military academy and is now the de facto chief executive.

“The field marshal does not like Omar,” said M. Cherif Bassiouni, an Egyptian-American legal scholar who knows both men. It was Mr. Tantawi, Mr. Bassiouni said, who ultimately blocked an initial plan for Mr. Mubarak to hand power only to Mr. Suleiman; Mr. Tantawi and the military council insisted that Mr. Suleiman go as well.

But relations may have changed as the military council has come under increasing pressure from the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that now controls the Parliament. And as the military council nears its pledged handover of power after the inauguration of a new president in June, factions within the government such as the intelligence services appear to be acting with growing independence, United States diplomats and Egyptian politicians say.

Independent campaigns to draft Mr. Suleiman for the presidency began within weeks of Mr. Mubarak’s ouster, said Saad el Abbasy, 69, a retired general who knew Mr. Suleiman in officers’ training programs and eventually organized an umbrella organization for their efforts. “He is the only one capable of restoring security and safety,” Mr. Abbasy said, adding, “The country needs a strongman to take control.”

Last week, Mr. Sharif issued a statement on Mr. Suleiman’s behalf that he declined to enter the race. Draft Suleiman supporters held a small rally to urge him to reconsider, and the next day Mr. Sharif issued another statement saying Mr. Suleiman would enter the race if supporters could collect the required 30,000 sworn statements of support, with thousands from each province around the country. The deadline was just two days away.

The draft Suleiman organizers, a team of 18 or so, had less than 2,000 statements, and all were from Cairo. But an astonishing flood of statements came in from around the country, all at once, evidence to his critics of military or intelligence support.

“Divine facilitation,” Mr. Suleiman said in his interview.

Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting.