Omar Suleiman, Powerful Egypt Spy Chief, Dies at 76
By ROD NORDLAND
Published: July 19, 2012
CAIRO — Omar Suleiman, the once-powerful head of Egypt’s intelligence service who represented the old government’s last attempt to hold on to power, died on Thursday at an American hospital, according to the state-owned Middle East News Agency. He was 76.
There had been no public reports that Mr. Suleiman was ailing or that he had gone to the United States for medical care, so the news of his death came as a surprise. Reuters said he died suddenly while undergoing a medical examination. Al Ahram, the state-owned newspaper in Egypt, said he died at a hospital in Cleveland. No cause was given.
That he died in the United States was, to his Egyptian critics, emblematic of his close ties with the C.I.A., which he had helped as it established the practice of extraordinary rendition: sending terrorism suspects to foreign countries to be interrogated and, its critics say, tortured.
When the C.I.A. asked Mr. Suleiman if he could provide a DNA sample from a brother of the Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri, Mr. Suleiman offered to send the agency the brother’s entire arm, according to Ron Suskind, who has written extensively about antiterrorism efforts.
Mr. Suleiman’s supporters, however, saw him as a pillar of the old order who might have served as a buffer between military rule on the one hand and dominance by Islamist groups on the other.
In 18 years as the head of the General Intelligence Service, better known as the Mukhabarat, Mr. Suleiman became, in the view of many, the most powerful spymaster in the Middle East. He was often referred to as President Hosni Mubarak’s “black box.” His insistence that the Egyptian leader use an armored car during a visit to Ethiopia in 1995 is said to have saved Mr. Mubarak from an assassin’s bullet.
As Mr. Mubarak was buffeted by months of street protests and calls for his resignation, he turned to Mr. Suleiman to lead negotiations with his critics. He later charged him with a last-ditch effort to reorganize the government, appointing him to the long-vacant post of vice president. The move was widely ridiculed by revolutionaries, and 13 days later, on Feb. 11, 2011, it was Mr. Suleiman who announced that Mr. Mubarak was standing down and handing over interim power to the military. Another figure took over the Mukhabarat.
Mr. Suleiman was the first head of the intelligence service whose identity became publicly known. He played a crucial role in Egyptian diplomatic efforts to forge a reconciliation between Palestinians from Hamas and from Fatah, although releases of diplomatic documents by WikiLeaks showed that he had worked with the Israelis to try to deny Hamas its electoral victory in Gaza. Mr. Suleiman viewed the organization as an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian party he had helped ban from participating in national politics until its victory in this year’s presidential election.
“I think a lot of secrets will die with him,” said Nabil Fahmy, a former Egyptian ambassador to the United States. “He had a unique ability of being in a very sensitive, often controversial position as head of intelligence but at the same time preserving the respect of people toward him. He was a professional.”
Mr. Suskind, who wrote about American antiterrorism efforts in his 2006 book “The One Percent Doctrine,” had a more trenchant view. “Suleiman was our go-to guy for ugly extralegal actions — like torture and renditions — that we wanted done, but without U.S. fingerprints on them,” Mr. Suskind said in a telephone interview. “His legacy represents the ongoing costs of these ‘dark side’ engagements for the U.S. — a loss of our honest broker’s credibility at a time it could be so valuable in shaping and guiding the democratic springtime in the region.”
Mr. Suleiman’s deep involvement in the C.I.A.’s program of extraordinary rendition implicated him in allegations of torture. The first known case of rendition, that of Talaat Fouad Qassem, was to Egypt in 1995, according to Omar Ashour, a visiting scholar at the Brookings Doha Center. Mr. Suleiman’s intelligence agency was also accused of involvement in the torture of dissidents.
His public speeches during the Tahrir Square revolution, denouncing protesters as agents of foreign governments and claiming that Egypt was not ready for democracy, eroded his public support. At the same time, many moderate Egyptians looked to Mr. Suleiman, and later to Mr. Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafik, as an alternative to Islamist leadership.
“For pro-revolution and pro-change Egyptians, he was the brains behind Mubarak’s regime survival and a brutal torturer-murderer,” Mr. Ashour said. “For pro-Mubarak, he is a source of stability in the country and a bulwark against Islamist advance.”
Mr. Suleiman’s death came at a symbolic moment. Mr. Mubarak was returned to prison this week after being held in the relative comfort of a military hospital, and Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s new president and a former leader in the Muslim Brotherhood, met on Thursday with Khaled Meshal, the top political leader of Hamas.
Mr. Suleiman was born on July 2, 1936, in Qena, a city in Upper Egypt. He graduated from Egypt’s military academy and, like Mr. Mubarak, received training in the Soviet Union. He studied political science at Cairo University and at Ain Shams University in Cairo.
As a former lieutenant general in the Egyptian military, he would be entitled to burial with military honors. But some critics in Cairo were already arguing against that. It would put Egypt’s new president in an awkward position, since he would be expected to attend.
“He is entitled to have a military funeral by law, and I respect that, but I don’t think that he deserves it,” said Hisham Kassem, a publisher and a political analyst. “This is a man who basically spent 18 years making sure Egypt does not move to the road of democracy.”
Kareem Fahim and Mai Ayyad contributed reporting.
A version of this article appeared in print on July 20, 2012, on page B11 of the New York edition with the headline: Omar Suleiman, Powerful Egypt Spy Chief, Dies at 76.