Position: Director of Egypt's General Intelligence Service
Career: The archetypical Arab intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman has risen from anonymous government apparatchik to serious candidate for the Egyptian presidency in less than a decade. Dubbed "one of the world's most powerful spy chiefs" by London's Daily Telegraph, Suleiman was born in 1935 in a poverty-stricken fundamentalist stronghold in southern Egypt. Choosing the military as his profession, he excelled academically, collecting degrees in Egypt and abroad and earning a transfer to military intelligence. His selection as director of Egypt's intelligence service in 1993 came just as the regime was reeling from extremist attacks against tourist sites and other critical infrastructure.
In 1995, he famously insisted that President Hosni Mubarak's armored Mercedes be flown to Ethiopia for a state visit; The car saved the Egyptian leader's life during an assassination attempt the next day. In response to the attack, Suleiman helped dismantle Mubarak's Islamist opponents, a campaign that earned him a reputation for ruthlessness. Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Suleiman's experience with combating Islamist terrorists has made him a favorite of Western intelligence services hungry for insights into al Qaeda and affiliated organizations.
Influence: More than from any other single factor, Suleiman's influence stems from his unswerving loyalty to Mubarak. Of Suleiman's allegiance, a former senior Israeli intelligence officer told Haaretz, "His primary task, perhaps his only one, is to defend the regime and protect the life of the president." In a sign of presidential gratitude, Egypt's secret warrior has also recently served as its diplomatic face, traveling throughout the region as Mubarak's personal emissary. This charge includes working as a mediator during ongoing Israeli and Palestinian negotiations and as Cairo's interlocutor to dozens of Palestinian groups, including Hamas. Whether this unofficial promotion is a trial run for a Suleiman presidency remains to be seen.
ARAB MEDIA are reporting that Egypt’s president for the past 28 years, Hosni Mubarak, is planning to step down following an early dissolution of parliament. He is also seeking, reports suggest, to bring forward to 2009 or 2010 the presidential election due in 2011.
The Saudi press has prompted the spate of reports by revealing that during a recent visit to Riyadh, Saudi King Abdullah was told by Mr Mubarak of his intention to retire before the end of his fifth six-year term. He is believed to have taken this decision because of faltering health and depression caused by the death of his beloved 12-year-old grandson.
The Egyptian opposition paper al-Usboa says Mr Mubarak (81) intends to transfer power to his son Gamal (45), who has been groomed to succeed.
However, the transition may not be so straightforward. Gamal Mubarak, a wealthy businessman and senior member of the ruling party, is not popular.
He could be challenged by intelligence chief Omar Suleiman who is not only popular, but could also have the backing of factions in the powerful military.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the main opposition group with 88 out of 444 elected seats in parliament, claims Gamal Mubarak is likely to assume power. The Egyptian media argues that a recent crackdown on the brotherhood is meant to neutralise the organisation ahead of the transition. More than 130 members, including three leaders, of the banned but tolerated brotherhood were arrested.
Whether he secures the presidency or not, Mr Suleiman is likely to continue playing a major role on the regional scene.
He has been trying to broker a reconciliation deal between the warring Palestinian Fatah and Hamas organisations, solidify the Gaza ceasefire, and forge an agreement with Hamas and Israel on the exchange of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, held in Gaza for more than three years.
In spite of the unprecedented speculation in the Egyptian media, Mr Mubarak continues to demonstrate he is still in charge.
Yesterday he called on the G-8 to freeze loan repayments to African countries and blamed Israel for the delay of a prisoner exchange. He said Israel had, at the last moment, imposed new conditions on a nearly concluded deal which links the release of Corporal Shalit to the opening of Gaza’s borders.
Mr Mubarak rose to the presidency in 1981 following the assassination of Anwar Sadat by army officers opposed to his peace treaty with Israel. At the time Mr Mubarak, a former air force chief, held the post of vice-president.
Mr Sadat took over in 1970 on the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Mr Mubarak has refused to appoint a vice-president or to anoint a successor.
And although political leadership has become a tired subject on the streets of the capital, the topic of succession enters many a conversation, the biggest concern being who will fill the shoes of the five-term president, Hosni Mubarak.
Mubarak, turning 81 in May, has given few signals regarding the country's political future.
Unlike his predecessors, Gamal Nasser and Anwar Sadat, Mubarak has resisted appointing a vice president who, following modern historical tradition here, would be likely to succeed him.
Mubarak was reelected in 2005 to a fifth term in a low-turnout election, and with speculation over whether he will seek a sixth term in 2011 or pass power to a pre-ordained successor, internal politics give some indication as to who might be waiting in the wings.
Most speculation currently swirls around the president's son Gamal Mubarak, who has risen rapidly through the ranks of the ruling National Democratic Party since leaving the world of finance in London.
"I think especially if the transition happens during [Hosni] Mubarak's lifetime, Gamal will be the candidate," said Emad Gad, a senior researcher at the Egyptian think tank, the Ahram Center.
But for the younger Mubarak to take power after his father, he'll have to overcome some significant hurdles, one of which is to earn the nomination of the NDP, which is most likely to win the election.
To do this, Mubarak will have to earn the support of the parliament. In 2002, he was appointed to head the party's policy committee which, though low profile, carries significant influence within the workings of the government.
The other obstacle in Mubarak's way is the powerful Egyptian military. Since the founding of the republic in 1953, all four of Egypt's presidents have been products of the armed forces. Gamal Mubarak never served, leading analysts to speculate that the military won't allow someone from outside its ranks to assume power.
But the military may be the biggest wildcard since its leadership operates in secrecy, usually outside the media spotlight.
"It is very difficult to discuss these things," Gad said. "No one really knows what the military is thinking or what the military will do."
Informed speculation over issues of succession is made more challenging by the fact that few within the NDP ranks are willing to wonder aloud about the future while Mubarak is still firmly entrenched as president.
Still, another name that continues to surface within political circles as a possible contender is Omar Suleiman, head of the Egyptian Intelligence Services.
Although Suleiman can check the military box, he is more than 70 years old, leading many to wonder whether his time has past.
The role of intelligence chief is often shrouded in secrecy, but Suleiman has been a long-serving adviser to Mubarak, who is known for making frequent shuffles within his ranks, and he has taken an unusually public role in dealing with international diplomacy.
Most recently, Suleiman publicly engaged in negotiations aimed at brokering a cease-fire in the latest conflict in Gaza.
There are other considerations.
Mubarak made waves in 2005, when he led the parliament to pass Constitutional Article 76.
Coming in the midst of President George W. Bush's doctrine of democratizing the Middle East, Article 76 ordered that presidential elections should, for the first time in history, be multiparty. Up until the passage of the article, challengers to the sitting president had to run as independents.
Critics blasted the high standards Article 76 set for nomination, claiming that no one outside the NDP would likely be eligible.
"Now only the parties that have enough seats in the National Assembly and a certain number of the local councils can be nominated for the new elections," Gad said.
Most damagingly, though, Article 76 set tougher, if not impossible, standards for independent candidates.
"They did that to stop the so-called illegal parties, like the Muslim Brotherhood, from running," Gad noted.
When democracy activist Ayman Nour ran as an independent in the 2005 presidential elections, he received little popular support. Still, he was jailed on charges of political fraud, a move that many saw as an effort by Mubarak to clamp down on the opposition.
The Muslim Brotherhood has also emerged as a strong player in the country's political system in recent years. It earned 88 seats in 454-member parliament in the 2005 election, stunning many in the international community.
Few expect the Muslim Brotherhood to be in serious contention for the presidency in 2011, but its surge in popularity has many in the political establishment on alert.
Ahead of the 2011 presidential elections, the country will hold local and parliamentary elections next year.
"We will see which political parties can get enough seats to contend in the presidential election," said Gad, adding that if smaller parties succeed in gaining support, there may be pressure on the establishment to allow more candidates into the presidential pool the following year.
Suleiman, who has headed the Egyptian intelligence service since the early 1990s, took up his mediating role in 2000, following the outbreak of the second intifada.
He had some success negotiating a brief ceasefire in June 2003.
But his critics have questioned his motivation - saying he is acting only to quell popular Egyptian sentiment.
Many also argue the temporary ceasefires simply allow Hamas and other Palestinian groups to rearm, often via smuggling tunnels running between Gaza and Egypt.
Suleiman was born in Qena, in the south of Egypt. He left for Cairo at the age of 19 to enroll in Egypt's military academy and went on to receive advanced military training in Russia.
He took part in in both the 1967 and 1973 Middle East wars, though details of his service are unclear
Both Mubarak and Suleimen survived an assassination attempt in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, where they were due to attend an African summit in June 1995.
The limousine Suleiman and Mubarak were travelling in came under fire, killing a number of bodyguards travelling with their convoy, before the driver was able to turn the car round and return to the airport.
The attack was blamed on members of the al-Qaeda-linked Egyptian Islamic Jihad, also known as the Society of Struggle, and said to be co-ordinated by Showqi al-Islambouli, a member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad.
His brother, Khalid Ahmed Showqi al-Islambouli, arranged and carried out the assassination of Mubarak's predecessor, Anwar Sadat, during a military parade in October 1981.
The Egyptian secret service regularly rounds up and arrests Muslim activists.
as whispers of the president’s ill-health spread. It was widely rumoured that, shocked by the death of his favourite grandson from illness in May, Mr Mubarak had a mild stroke. He was not seen in public for a week. When he reappeared, he looked frailer. When Barack Obama came to Cairo a fortnight later to deliver his momentous speech to the Muslim world, Egypt’s 81-year-old president failed to turn up. More recently, however, he has made an effort to appear at carefully orchestrated public outings. This week he was hobnobbing with President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris.
There is no clear succession, yet the issue has nagged Egyptians (and foreigners who watch the Arab world’s most populous country, 80m-strong) for a good decade. After heading the air force, Mr Mubarak became vice-president in 1975, then succeeded to the top job after Anwar Sadat was assassinated by Muslim fundamentalists after making peace with Israel. Since then, he has refused to drop any hint about the succession, presumably because he thinks that by doing so he would set off an ugly power struggle that could lead to his own speedy retirement.
President Mubarak has never appointed a vice-president, which some constitutional lawyers deem illegal. In the case of his death or permanent incapacity, Parliament’s speaker becomes an interim president for up to 60 days but cannot then run for president. If the speaker is for some reason unavailable, the chairman of the Constitutional Council takes the interim presidency under the same terms. The constitution cannot be changed nor the government dismissed during this period.
For four of his five six-year terms, Mr Mubarak has been nominated by Parliament as the sole candidate, then confirmed in a popular referendum. But in 2005, under American pressure, Mr Mubarak brought in a constitutional amendment to let a multiplicity of candidates run for president in direct elections, though they had to be put forward by legally recognised political parties. Official results gave him a laughable 89% of the vote against nearly 8% for his main challenger, Ayman Nour, who was later sentenced to five years in prison on dubious fraud charges.
The names of the favourites to succeed Mr Mubarak have been bandied about for years, though neither of the two front-runners has ever openly said he wanted the top job. Mr Mubarak’s son Gamal, who runs the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), has won the support of businessmen for promoting economic reforms since 2004. The other main contender is General Omar Suleiman, who has run the intelligence service since 1991. Involved in every regional conundrum, such as efforts to reunite the Palestinians and bring them to a peace deal with Israel, he is generally admired by his counterparts. Other names are occasionally aired, such as Mohamed ElBaradei, who since 1997 has headed the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog; he is due to step down in November. Another is Amr Moussa, a popular former foreign minister of Egypt who since 2001 has run the 22-member Arab League.
But in the end it usually comes down to Gamal versus Omar. Egyptians are divided over who is likely to prevail and who would run the country better. The younger Mubarak, at 46, has established himself as heir apparent by drawing new blood into the NDP and backing technocratic reform. A former investment banker, he is more relaxed than his father at smart gatherings such as the annual forum in Davos. He surrounds himself with some of Egypt’s richest people. Constitutional amendments passed in 2007 restrict eligibility for presidential elections. As a result, some say that no other candidate or political force will be able to oppose him as the ruling party’s likely candidate.
But critics say Mr Mubarak junior lacks a popular touch and that an inheritance of power would not be welcomed by most Egyptians or by the armed forces—and they have been the regime’s backbone since the Free Officers overthrew the monarchy in 1952. “If [President] Mubarak disappears, there will be a political vacuum,” says Osama al-Ghazali Harb, a former friend of the younger Mubarak who has become an opposition politician and prominent commentator. “The military is the only institution able to fill that vacuum, and there will be tanks on the street.”
In this view, General Suleiman, aged 73, would become president in a constitutional coup, which Mr Harb hopes might then prompt a transition to more democratic politics. But Mr Suleiman’s own relations with senior military men are not always clear. Military politics is murky. Succession in each Arab state seems to follow its own rules and, after Mr Mubarak dies, a power-grabbing junta cannot be ruled out.
The succession debate has spilled into Facebook and Twitter, where young Egyptians row over the candidates’ merits. Even the Muslim Brotherhood, the only strong political force outside the regime’s control, is divided over whether it should stand fiercely against the inheritance of power.
The uncertainty is again making a lot of Egyptians nervous. Speculation is rising that the older Mubarak may step down before the next presidential election in 2011. Every political development in the country, however banal, tends to be seen in the light of the succession. It hinders the steady running of the country, and hampers a healthy debate, even within the confines of the ruling establishment. It is bad for Egypt.
Mubarak, who has long been grooming his son, Jamal, to succeed him, is currently under pressure from many Egyptians to prefer Suleiman, according to a report in Thursday's London-based pan-Arab daily Al-Quds al-Arabi.
Jamal Mubarak is also said to be concerned about Suleiman's growing popularity and the demands to name him the next president, the paper said in an exclusive dispatch from Cairo.
It quoted informed sources in the Egyptian capital as saying that the talk about Suleiman's rising stardom could backfire, resulting perhaps in the intelligence chief's ouster from his post.
"General Suleiman is highly appreciated among ordinary Egyptians," the sources said. "But the Egyptian regime is known for getting rid of anyone who gains popular admiration."
Mubarak's supporters are particularly "shocked" about the pro-Suleiman campaign that has been launched on the Internet by young Egyptians. One of the drives is being held under the motto: "Neither Jamal nor the Muslim Brotherhood." Some Egyptian bloggers and chatters have also joined the pro-Suleiman camp by publishing numerous articles explaining why he is the most suitable candidate to succeed Mubarak.
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Surveys conducted by Suleiman supporters showed that Egyptians prefer him over Mubarak's son as the next president, the sources told the paper.
"About 12 million Egyptians are following all the news published about Suleiman on the Internet, as opposed to only a few thousand who have displayed interest in other prominent Egyptian officials," the sources added.
Jamal and his supporters have thus far succeeded in preventing the emergence of a powerful candidate to succeed Mubarak, they said, noting that several former government officials whose names had been mentioned as leading candidates have found themselves "sitting at home" doing nothing