CAIRO (Reuters) - The confrontation between Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and a million or more of his compatriots has brought long-serving intelligence chief and newly appointed vice president Omar Suleiman out of the shadows.
But far from reassuring Egyptians demanding that Mubarak leave office, Suleiman has alienated many of them with his conservative ideas and his security-minded inflexibility. To many he is repeating the mantras long used by Mubarak.
Suleiman gave his first full-length interview on February 3 and spoke to Egyptian newspaper editors on Tuesday. In his role as spy chief he had rarely spoken in public, except for occasional comments during his visits to Israel.
In an interview with ABC television, he said he wanted to see democracy, but added quickly: “But when will we do that? When the people here have the culture of democracy.”
Even the White House, which sees Suleiman as a welcome successor to Mubarak, said his remark was unhelpful. “I don’t think that in any way squares with what those seeking greater opportunity and freedom think is a timetable for progress,” spokesman Robert Gibbs told a news briefing.
Suleiman, who now appears on television almost daily, has rejected the central demand of the protest movement.
He insists Mubarak and his government must stay in office to see through a transition process leading to constitutional amendments and a free presidential election.
But so far he has offered the opposition little to make them trust the government’s good intentions, after years of what rights groups say have been rigged elections and brutality against political dissidents. The government denies the charges.
In his talk to Egyptian editors, Suleiman echoed many of the themes Mubarak has emphasized over the years, especially when he faced an internal challenge to his authority.
Echoing comments in Mubarak’s February 1 speech when the president promised not to run for office again, Suleiman said Egypt faced a choice between stability and chaos, which could only be prevented if Mubarak stayed on until a September vote.
Suleiman portrayed Egypt as a country besieged by malevolent forces, including satellite television channels.
“Pressures will never be in the interests of society but will be an invitation to more chaos and for the bats of the night to come out and alarm society,” he said.
“We are sure that Egypt is being targeted and this is an opportunity for them and not for change, but all they are interested in is weakening Egypt and creating chaos, the extent of which God alone knows,” he added.
Mubarak, 82, has for years presented his rule as the shield against “chaos” and those, usually identified as Islamists, determined to destroy the state.
Suleiman, 74, a former army general with no political experience, has offered the opposition what he calls a road map for change. But Mubarak has a history of reneging on promises, such as his 2005 electoral pledge to abolish a state of emergency in force since he came to power in 1981.
Even the changes that do take place under his watch must be “studied and stable,” Suleiman added, the kind of words that anger protesters demanding a change now not later.
Many Egyptians, even those in the protest movement, have said they are willing to let Suleiman run the country during a transitional period after Mubarak leaves. But his public remarks have persuaded many others that he is not the right man.
“Suleiman is just like the rest of the old regime,” said Egyptian blogger Zainab Mohamed.
“He is too arrogant to respect the Egyptian people. He is too arrogant to accept the fact that he is working for the people, not the people working for him according to the real culture of democracy,” she added.
Suleiman’s public remarks and comments in diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks show his strategy in dealing with the West and with Israel is to portray the Egyptian government as a bastion against Iranian influence and militant Islamists, again mirroring Mubarak’s warnings.
But the popular uprising in Egypt, which brings together liberals, Islamists and leftists, has started to undermine that excuse, at least for the moment.
Suleiman’s role in enforcing the blockade of Gaza and working with Israel against the Palestinian group Hamas has also made him unpopular among the protest movement.
Many of the posters in Tahrir Square, the center of the protests, denounce him and Mubarak as U.S. and Israeli agents.
Born on July 2, 1936, in Qena in southern Egypt, Suleiman spent all his working life in the army and intelligence.
He was in charge of the most important political security files, and was the mastermind behind the fragmentation of Islamist groups who rose up against the state in the 1990s.
Editing by Edmund Blair