By Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman
General Omar Suleiman, who had been one of the most powerful men in President Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship in Egypt, was buried today in Cairo – in a highly ceremonial procession, attended by political and military VIP’s who somehow survived the upheavals that led to Mubarak’s downfall last year and this year’s election of a Muslim Brotherhood president.
The newly elected president, Mohamed Morsi, did not attend the funeral; but he did show enough respect for the Old Guard to send a presidential representative to the funeral.
Suleiman’s flag-draped coffin was paraded through some of Cairo’s streets, and the entire affair was handled with honor. Morsi was most likely showing that he does not plan – at least not right away – to tear up all of Egypt’s recent traditions, including those of the proud military.
Yet, as Suleiman’s coffin disappeared into the Egyptian soil, one had to wonder if Egypt’s mutually cooperative relationship with Israel was also being buried.
Omar Suleiman had been head of Egypt’s military intelligence since 1991 and then head of the General Intelligence Service, including significant secret-police functions, since 1995.
After 9/11, he was reported to be in charge of Egypt’s cooperation with the CIA’s “rendition” program, as al-Qaeda suspects were routed through Egypt for detention and interrogations.
Suleiman certainly was the Mubarak regime’s principal liaison with Israel. While President Mubarak, along with most Egyptian politicians, may have played a bit of an Arabist by frequently criticizing Israeli policies – especially Jewish settlements and Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Suleiman, however, was tasked with being pragmatic – with no reason to get bogged down with protests and policy disagreements.
Israeli intelligence leaders, in the past twenty years or so, all had personal relationships – usually quite friendly, and not merely cool and correct – with General Suleiman.
During Mubarak’s final two weeks as president – desperately clinging to power in February 2011, as Tahrir Square in Cairo throbbed with huge crowds of Egyptians demanding the dictator’s downfall – he made Suleiman his vice president. Whatever that was meant to convey to the various power centers in Egyptian politics, it did not work.
Mubarak resigned and was arrested – considered likely, after his trial and conviction, to spend the rest of his life in prison.
Suleiman was apparently too clever for that, as he spirited himself out of the country. Only after he died, this past week at age 76, was it revealed that he was being treated in an unnamed American hospital – and this long-time ally of the United States intelligence and defense communities died in the U.S.
Just one of many interesting connections between Israeli intelligence and Suleiman was the fact, we reveal in our book, that when Israel wanted to get the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency to get a lot tougher toward Iran, the Israelis secretly turned to Suleiman.
The Mossad – notably based on research from its Nabak unit (an acronym for Neshek Bilti Konventzionali, Hebrew for “Non-Conventional Weapons”) – gave Suleiman a dossier full of examples and evidence, as the Israelis saw it, that IAEA director-general Mohamed elBaradei was close to Iran and perhaps even controlled by Iranian intelligence officers who had senior positions at IAEA headquarters in Vienna, Austria.
Because elBaradei was a former Egyptian diplomat, the Israelis hoped that Mubarak’s government could rein in the IAEA chief’s behavior. General Suleiman was handed the file, but apparently Cairo’s government could not or did not change what elBaradei was doing.
The Mossad was so concerned about elBaradei’s leanings – with his practically ignoring, they felt, evidence that Iran was making rapid progress in a secret nuclear bomb program – that they came up with a plot to force him out of his United Nations-sponsored job.
Israel’s foreign intelligence agency prepared to make money transfers into elBaradei’s personal bank account – and those unexplained deposits would be made to look like bribes from Iran. For various reasons, the Israelis did not go through with that particular gambit, but it was seriously considered and showed the depth of concern about elBaradei’s perceived bias.
With General Suleiman now dead and buried, any historian can only hope that far more complete stories will come out regarding how he cooperated with the United States and Israel in projects – large and small – in the Middle East.
When the U.S. and Israel regret the loss of Hosni Mubarak – as life in the region was a little bit easier for them with a compliant and generally friendly president in Cairo – they are mourning the loss of a lynchpin figure, Omar Suleiman.