With the resignation of Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, Vice President Omar Suleiman and the Supreme Military Council are now in charge of a period of transition. The direction in which this transition will lead however, is unclear.
Pro-democracy protestors who ousted Mubarak are hopeful that the country will transition to a democracy. They are skeptical however, of Suleiman, a 74 year old military general who has run the feared and powerful Egyptian General Intelligence Service (EGIS) for almost two decades. Suave, sophisticated, fluent in English, and a dapper dresser, he was the chief liaison between Mubarak and successive US and Israeli administrations.
According to a former member of the US State Department and National Security Council , Suleiman “is reviled among the Egyptian population” and is seen by it “as the regime’s point-man in the so-called war on terror” and “the rendition program” (the covert program by which the CIA kidnaps terror suspects from around the world and sends them to Egypt and other countries for interrogation under brutal conditions). In fact, Egypt’s protestors call him “Sheik-al-Torture” or “Torture Chief”. For them, he is an extension of the Mubarak regime, a part of the problem and not part of the solution.
In the US and Israel, he is well respected because of his reputation as an ardent anti-Islamist , his role in upholding Israeli policies related to Gaza and his views on Iran, that are strikingly similar to those of Israel. Not surprisingly, diplomatic cables leaked by Wikileaks reveal that he has long been Israel’s preferred candidate to succeed Mubarak.
Suleiman has been lauded as “an expert in defeating violent Islamist extremism” and ”the only serving intelligence chief who has personally taken apart an Islamist insurgency”. Within five years of being appointed director of the EGIS, he crippled both of Egypt’s main extremist groups – Gama’a Islamiya and al-Jihad. How this happened is controversial. Critics point to brutal methods, notably torture inside Egypt’s prisons. However, Egyptian officials stress a program to rehabilitate Islamist fighters.
Although Human rights groups have long reported that torture in Egypt, especially in national security cases, is widespread, their reports have received little attention from US policy makers. In the War on Terror, the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations have all rendered terror suspects to Egypt and other countries, with Egypt being the most frequent destination. A former CIA operative and Middle East expert, Robert Baer referring to terror suspects, said “If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria, If you want someone to disappear – never to see them again – you send them to Egypt”.
The Bush administration claimed that detainees were transferred to Egypt and other countries, only if assurances were given that they would not be tortured. According to Michael Scheuer, a former CIA official who set up the practice of rendition, these assurances under Suleiman’s directorship at the EGIS “weren’t worth a bucket of warm spit”.
A former US ambassador to Egypt, Edward Walker, described Suleiman as “very bright, very realistic” and added that as head of the Intelligence Service, Suleiman was involved in “some of the negative things that the Egyptians engaged in, torture and so on”. Walker continued, “He was not squeamish, by the way”.
Ron Suskind , author of the book, “The One Percent Doctrine”” wrote that Suleiman was considered the “hit man” for the Mubarak regime. In an interview with ABC News, Suskind describing Suleiman, said “He tortures only people he doesn’t know”.
Former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, described Suleiman, as “a thug wearing a silk tie: a really nasty, mean guy. He makes Mubarak look like a fuzzy puppy.
Mamdouh Habib, an Australian citizen of Egyptian birth was reportedly tortured by Suleiman himself. Based on Habib’s memoir “My Story – The Tale of a Terrorist who Wasn’t”, Australian writer, Richard Neville has related the following:
“…Habib was interrogated by the country’s Intelligence Director, General Omar Suleiman …who took a personal interest in anyone suspected of links with Al Qaeda. As Habib had visited Afghanistan shortly before 9/11, he was under suspicion. According to his memoir, Habib was repeatedly zapped with high-voltage electricity, immersed in water up to his nostrils, beaten, his fingers were broken and he was hung from metal hooks…. Suleiman slapped Habib’s face so hard, that the blindfold (Habib’s) was dislodged, revealing the torturer’s identity.”
“To loosen Habib’s tongue, Suleiman ordered a guard to murder a gruesomely shackled Turkistan prisoner in front of Habib – and he did, with a vicious karate kick.”
After five months in Egypt, Habib was rendered to Bagram jail in Kandahar and later to Guantanamo, Cuba. After being held in Guantanamo Bay for almost three years, Mamdouh Habib, a man who was innocent of any ties to terror or militancy, was released without charge.
A far more infamous torture case with enormous implications, in which Omar Suleiman also was directly involved, was that of Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, allegedly a trainer at an al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan. He was captured by the Pakistanis while trying to flee across the border in November 2001. According to Jane Mayer of the New Yorker, al-Libi was initially questioned by the FBI. The CIA then took over, and rendered him to Egypt. Under torture by Suleiman’s intelligence service, al-Libi “confessed” knowledge about an al-Qaeda-Saddam connection, claiming that the Iraqis were giving al Qaeda, biological and chemical weapons. This information was incorporated into the speech given by Colin Powell at the UN in 2003. The torture inflicted on al-Libi, provided the false confession that helped the US make its case for the war against Iraq.
Several years later, after the invasion of Iraq did not turn up weapons of mass destruction or ties between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, Libi recanted. As Michael Isikoff and David Corn reported in their book, “Hubris”, Libi explained, “They were killing me,” and that, “I had to tell them something.”
Despite human rights violations by the EGIS under Suleiman, Western main stream news media and Egyptian state-controlled news media have almost consistently ignored the evidence. With Mubarak’s exit, Suleiman is now portrayed as the leader best able to maintain stability during this transition period. Given his human rights record, it is unclear whether he will lead Egypt toward democracy or yet another authoritarian regime.