CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt’s former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, the urbane and shadowy power broker who enforced Hosni Mubarak’s rule, died in the United States of a heart attack on Thursday. He was 76.
General Suleiman symbolized the autocratic, military-backed rule which dominated much of the Arab world for the last half-century or more, now being challenged by restive populations.
Nicknamed “the black box” for his role as one of Mubarak’s most trusted advisers, he was also a willing point man in the rendition of Egyptian fighters from Iraq and Afghanistan - in which the United States handed over prisoners to Egypt for interrogation. Rights groups said he was involved in the widespread torture of detainees.
According to state news agency MENA, he died of a sudden heart attack after suffering heart and lung problems. Preparations were under way to bring his body home for burial, his assistant, Hussein Kamal, told Reuters.
Egypt’s interim government paid tribute to Suleiman, calling him a “patriotic, honest figure” in a statement carried by state news website Al-Ahram.
But to his critics, he was at the heart of a system that brutally abused anyone who opposed it; a system which with the election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi as president in June is now being replaced by the very Islamists it sought to contain.
In one of the more widely quoted tales of Suleiman’s alleged ruthlessness, Ron Suskind, a journalist and expert on the George W. Bush government, said when U.S. intelligence officials asked him for a DNA sample from a relative of Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahri - he offered to send the man’s arm.
In the end, it fell to Suleiman to announce the end of Mubarak’s 30 years in power on February 11, 2011.
Having spent most of his career in the shadows, he moved firmly into the public eye in the last days of Mubarak’s rule when the president appointed him as his deputy, part of efforts to defuse the uprising raging in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
In his 13 days as vice president, Suleiman held unprecedented talks on political reform with opposition forces, including the then-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
But the youthful revolutionaries who spearheaded the uprising were incensed by his suggestion that Egyptians were not ready for democracy, and the man credited with having saved Mubarak’s life during a 1995 assassination attempt in Ethiopia was not able to save his presidency.
As Egypt’s top man on national security, he was the mastermind behind the fragmentation of Islamist groups who rose up against the state. In the year before his death one of those groups, Al-Gama‘a Al-Islamiya, moved into the political mainstream and won seats in parliament.
Following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, Suleiman brought his expertise combating militant Islam to the West’s fight against Al Qaeda, whose top leadership has included numerous Egyptians, including Zawahri, who replaced Osama bin Laden after he was killed by U.S. forces in Pakistan last year.
Jane Mayer, author of “The Dark Side”, says Suleiman was “the CIA’s pointman in Egypt for renditions - a covert program in which the CIA snatched terror suspects from around the world and returned them to Egypt and elsewhere for interrogation, often under brutal circumstances.”
Suleiman’s public remarks and comments in diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks showed his strategy in dealing with the West and with Israel was to portray the Egyptian government as a bastion against Iranian influence and militant Islamists.
Having said in a 2011 interview that Egypt did not yet have a culture of democracy, Suleiman entered the country’s first free presidential election a year later at the eleventh hour, citing the threat of a full Islamist takeover as his motivation.
His sudden re-emergence in the public eye angered those Egyptians for whom he represented all they had risen up against. But he also found support among those worried by the rise of the Islamist movement, which had swept parliamentary elections earlier in the year.
“Many people felt that the state is going to the Muslim Brotherhood - in parliament, in government and now the presidency,” Suleiman told Reuters in an April 14 interview.
But he also acknowledged the role assumed by the Islamists, describing them as “a very important segment” of society.
Suleiman’s presidential hopes were cut short by an apparent administrative failure by his campaign team, which failed to secure enough voter endorsements for him to qualify for the election. Conspiracy theorists argued he had never intended to run but had entered the race so the army-backed authorities could disqualify Islamists without causing a major backlash.
Suleiman was born on July 2, 1936 in Qena, in southern Egypt. He enrolled in Egypt’s premier military academy in 1954 and received further military training in the then Soviet Union. He also studied political science at Cairo University and Ain Shams University.
His full role in the opaque Mubarak administration is likely to remain a mystery. His role extended well beyond the remit of an intelligence chief, including tasks more akin to those of a foreign minister, managing relations with the United States and Israel.
Some called Suleiman “The Conductor” for the way he appeared at times to manage attempts to reconcile the Palestinians and Israelis like an orchestra.
His fiercest critics branded him an agent for Israel and the United States and said he was at the heart of Egypt’s participation in the Israeli-led blockade of the Gaza Strip.
But they conceded that Suleiman had spared Gaza from some deadly Israeli offensives by appealing to Israeli leaders and pressuring Hamas - the Islamist movement ruling Gaza - and other factions to restore calm.
Suleiman left the country after his failed presidency bid, initially travelling to Abu Dhabi with relatives.
He will take many of the secrets of the Mubarak era to his grave, his death depriving Egyptians of the opportunity to put him on trial.
“There is sorrow for all those who hoped for his punishment on earth, to see him a convicted criminal in the prisons where he put them for so long,” said Facebook user Ibrahim el-Houdaiby.
Additional reporting by Marwa Awad and Shaimaa Fayed; Writing by Tom Pfeiffer and Tom Perry; Editing by Myra MacDonald