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Egypt's intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, could be called on to smooth turmoil

By Joby Warrick and Greg Miller
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 1, 2011; 9:34 PM

In his nearly two decades as intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman served as Egypt's quiet fix-it man in some of the Middle East's most delicate disputes. He helped negotiate cease-fires, refereed talks between Arabs and Israelis, and even aided the CIA when it needed a hand interrogating terrorism suspects.

Now some of his countrymen are looking to the 74-year-old general to pull off a much more public feat: finding a peaceful resolution to Egypt's worst unrest in decades.

President Hosni Mubarak's decision on Tuesday not to seek reelection shifted the spotlight again to Suleiman, the newly installed vice president, who has emerged as a possible bridge between the current government and whatever comes next. A career military officer removed from politics, Suleiman is widely viewed in the region as a solid, competent pragmatist who could count on the backing of Egypt's army as well as the respect of governments in the Middle East and around the world.

But to be accepted even as an interim leader by ordinary Egyptians, he would have to overcome the taint of a close alliance with Mubarak, as well as his long association with the country's feared intelligence services, U.S. officials and Middle East experts said. Suleiman has drawn criticism from human rights groups for working with the CIA in a controversial program known as "rendition," in which the U.S. spy agency secretly transferred captured terrorism suspects to Egypt for interrogation. Several former detainees later claimed that they were tortured.

Egyptian protesters have signaled their displeasure with Suleiman's promotion to vice president, and Middle East experts say his appeal could diminish rapidly if unrest continues or if security forces use violence against demonstrators.

"There is going to be a tipping point, beyond which someone like Suleiman will not be acceptable" to the Egyptian street, said Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to both Israel and Egypt. "I don't yet know if we've reached that point."

A military man

On paper, at least, Suleiman appears to have the experience and the temperament to help steer the country through turbulent waters. Born in 1936 in the southern town of Qena, he enrolled in one of the country's premier military academies as a young man and served in three wars, including Egypt's conflicts with Israel in 1967 and 1973. He later became head of military intelligence and was promoted by Mubarak in 1993 to be chief of the General Intelligence Service, the national security intelligence agency. The GIS is responsible for counterterrorism but also plays a prominent diplomatic role.

In Suleiman's case, the job carried responsibilities for helping negotiate settlements in some of the region's conflicts. He brokered talks between Israelis and Arabs and sought rapprochement between the rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah. While Egypt is a close backer of Fatah's Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, Suleiman has also cultivated good ties with Hamas, whose leadership perceives him as an impartial, bright mediator.

"He is intelligent. He understands the geopolitics, especially in the Arab countries, very well. He has good relations with the Israelis and also the Palestinians, especially with Ramallah," Mahmoud Zahar, one of Hamas's top leaders in Gaza, said in a telephone interview Monday, referring to Abbas's seat of power in the West Bank.

Israel's leadership has been enamored with Suleiman for years. He travels to Israel several times a year and met with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu as recently as November. The two, who are routinely photographed shaking hands, have had a good working relationship, an Israeli official said. And they share a deep concern about Iran's growing influence in the Middle East.

As head of the GIS, Suleiman earned a reputation as one of the most powerful intelligence chiefs in the Arab world and a reliable ally of the CIA.

A former senior U.S. intelligence official who had multiple meetings with Suleiman described him as deeply involved in every aspect of the diplomatic relationship between the two countries, as well as a CIA partner in sensitive programs, including transfers and interrogations of prisoners captured in counterterrorism operations.

Suleiman, the former official said, was known for taking CIA leaders on boat tours of the Nile and providing extensive cooperation in gathering intelligence on al-Qaeda. "He was a good partner," the former official said, noting that Egypt has played a critical counterterrorism role because "half the al-Qaeda leadership was Egyptian."

The CIA also transferred as many as two dozen prisoners to Egypt after they were captured in counterterrorism operations, the former official said. Critics of the CIA have contended that the agency did this to bypass bans on torture and that Suleiman was complicit in those transactions.

The agency has insisted that it transferred prisoners only after receiving assurances that they would not be mistreated, and that Egypt honored those commitments largely out of fear of being cut off from CIA support. Former officials said CIA funding accounts for a substantial portion of the Egyptian spy service's budget.

Ties to the CIA

Suleiman is a bold, boisterous speaker, always offering new ideas on intelligence operations or efforts to advance Palestinian peace talks. In some instances, he used his contacts to push for stronger U.S. support for Mubarak. In 2008, for example, Suleiman persuaded then-CIA Director Michael V. Hayden to extend a visit to meet with Mubarak. The Egyptian leader used the session to complain that the Bush administration's criticism of his autocratic regime was short-sighted.

Because of those ties to the U.S. spy service, Suleiman is accused by critics of being an accomplice in counterterrorism operations that have been denounced by human rights groups, including the alleged torture of prisoners who were delivered to Egypt by the CIA.

Perhaps the most consequential case involved an alleged al-Qaeda operative known as Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi. Under interrogation by American and Egyptian authorities, Libi claimed that Iraq was providing training to al-Qaeda operatives on chemical and biological weapons. He subsequently retracted the claim, which critics said was made under duress, but not before the erroneous information was used by the Bush administration to make the case for invading Iraq.

Egyptian protesters' wariness of Suleiman is mainly a reflection of his status as Mubarak's most loyal subordinate. But his ties to the CIA also undermine his standing, as well as that of the U.S. government, with the factions seeking to oust Mubarak, experts said.

"There's tremendous suspicion among Egyptians that no matter what fine words they hear from the United States about democracy and freedom, that deep down Americans are afraid of change," said Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch. That is accompanied by concern, Malinowski said, "that a man like Suleiman would be [America's] agent in preserving a stability that is a euphemism for dictatorship."

warrickj@washpost.com millergreg@washpost.com

Correspondent Janine Zacharia in Jerusalem and staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.

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