September 6, 2010

Omar Suleiman - "the real alternative"

Lieutenant General 'Umar Mahmud Sulayman, more commonly transliterated as Omar Suleiman, has emerged as a possible successor to Egyptian President Husni Mubarak in the elections scheduled for September 2011. Posters hailing Suleiman as "the real alternative" to the election of Gamal Mubarak, son of incumbent President Husni Mubarak. Interestingly, the posters suddenly disappeared when Mubarak's National Democratic Party objected.

The potential election of the younger Mubarak is being criticized by many Egyptians as the creation of a political-hereditary dynasty in the country. The successor to 82-year old Husni Mubarak will replace not only the longest-serving president in the Egyptian republic's short history, but also the longest-serving Egyptian head of state since Muhammad 'Ali Pasha in the first half of the 19th century. Mubarak ascended to the presidency upon the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981; he was the vice president at the time. The elder Mubarak plans to see his legacy continue in the person of his son.

There are other well-known Egyptians considering a run for the office. Two names known in the West include 'Amr Musa (Moussa), the respected former foreign minister and current secretary general of the Arab league, and Muhammad al-Barada'i (el-Baradei), the not-so-respected former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Of the two, Musa is certainly more qualified and probably more friendly to the United States.

That said, the best candidate for the presidency is General Suleiman. I worked with the general in the past on several issues in the region, beginning when he was selected to be the director of military intelligence (DMI) in 1991. He traveled to Washington, and I met with him in Cairo a few years later. I found him to be a gentleman who embodied the integrity that we often found missing in senior military officers in the region in general, and in military intelligence officers in particular. When General Suleiman gave you his word, you could count on it.

It was no surprise that Fariq 'Umar Afandi (Lieutenant General Omar) served for only a short period of time as the DMI. The general quickly came to the attention of President Husni Mubarak, who named him as the chief of Egyptian General Intelligence (EGI), one of the most powerful and effective intelligence services in the Middle East. I will caveat my use of the "effective" adjective - the EGI can get things done, they can conduct clandestine and covert operations. They are an operational service, however. Their "pure" intelligence abilities, by which I mean the collection of intelligence information and the production of accurate intelligence assessments is limited.

Nevertheless, the 74-year old General Suleiman is an effective interlocutor on a variety of issues in the Middle East. When there are serious negotiations between governments, between various special interest groups and other groups or governments, or mediating delicate political issues between leader, the name Omar Suleiman often comes up as an honest broker. He is respected by virtually all sides and parties within and without the Middle East. When the Israelis talk with the Palestinians, or the Syrians, or the Palestinian factions such as Hamas and the Palestinian Authority talk to each other, the general is often the conduit. He has been an asset to Husni Mubarak - Suleiman has allowed Egypt (and thus Mubarak) to play a key role in almost anything significant in the region.

I do not think it likely that Suleiman will be elected - I do not know if he is actually seeking the office or if he is being hopefully courted by supporters who want him to run. That is unfortunate - the general would be a breath of fresh air in what has become one of the most corrupt governments in the region. Mubarak and his sons have been tainted by corruption, but thus far have been able to maintain themselves in power. Although Mubarak has generally been an ally of the United States, it would be beneficial to have a truly honest broker in Cairo, one whose word you could trust.

I can't vote in Egypt's upcoming elections, but if I could, I would cast my vote for the general.