This piece was originally posted as an Expert Comment for Chatham House.
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The death of Omar Suleiman has taken many by surprise. The poor health of Egypt’s intelligence chief had been a closely guarded secret, causing the news that he had been seeking medical treatment to come out of the blue.
As the dust settles after the election of President Mohamed Morsy, the death of a key member of the former regime raises fresh questions about the role of Egypt’s intelligence agencies in the country’s rocky transition.
Egypt’s revolution was one of the most well-documented uprisings in history. For 18 days, images of heroism in the face of regime brutality were splashed across the world’s front-pages. But if the revolution was televised, so was the moment it faced extinction. The image of a dour Omar Suleiman announcing the imminent transfer of power to the military can now be read as the moment that Egypt’s counter-revolution broke out into the open.
During a short-lived presidential campaign, Suleiman attempted to distance himself from the former regime. In reality, the intelligence chief had been one of Hosni Mubarak’s closest confidantes. Appointed head of Egypt’s powerful General Intelligence Service (GIS) in 1993, Suleiman had burnished his reputation for regime loyalty through years as Mubarak’s bodyguard. The agency expanded its powers considerably during his time at the helm, gaining influence over key areas of domestic and foreign policy. By 2009, Suleiman had risen to become one of the region’s most powerful intelligence chiefs.
America’s point man
Under Suleiman, the GIS became a key player in the American-led ‘war on terror’. Describing the mukhabarat chief as Mubarak’s ‘consigliore’ in a 2007 Wikileaks cable, US officials awarded him a central role in their counterterrorism efforts. From 1995 onwards, Egypt became an important site for American extraordinary rendition programmes and GIS officials were involved in the torture of detainees in line with the investigative aims of the CIA. According to a 2006 report by the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the Bush Administration’s belief that there were links between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein was based on the testimony of Libyan national Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi. It was later revealed that his assertions had come under extreme duress at the hands of the GIS. Repeated allegations linking Suleiman to other rendition cases underline the role that the GIS director had come to play on the global stage.
‘The eye of the Egyptian intelligence does not sleep.’
Suleiman’s death presents a fresh opportunity to examine the position of the GIS in the post-Mubarak era. Reform of Egypt’s repressive security apparatus was an important demand of the January revolution but 18 months on, the most notable power shift has in fact occurred in the GIS’s favour. This was firmly emphasized last week when a documentary commemorating the organisation’s 57th anniversary aired on national television. The message was an ominous one: ‘The eye of the Egyptian intelligence does not sleep.’
If President Morsy can accumulate sufficient authority, there is an outside chance that he will attempt to bring the GIS under control. But the odds would be stacked against him in this endeavour. His formal powers are limited and any challenge to the mukhabarat’s authority will meet with resistance from powerful enemies. The GIS’ legacy of brutal suppression of Islamist groups – a crusade spearheaded by Suleiman – still festers between the two camps. As a result, intelligence officials are reported to be obstructing the Muslim Brotherhood from securing the government ministries that would oversee the GIS.
The picture is further complicated by an uneasy relationship between the intelligence directorate and Egypt’s military council. The two institutions share a common interest in preventing the president from taking full control of the levers of state security. This potentially powerful convergence of interests may yet be tempered by GIS mistrust of the army’s opaque dealings with the Muslim Brotherhood, but the outcome of such suspicions are difficult to predict.
Suleiman’s death may mark the end of a significant chapter in Egypt’s history, but the GIS he leaves behind remains a potent force. Regardless of internecine struggles to come, the loss of the mukhabarat’s figurehead will do little to diminish a power that runs far deeper than its public fascia.