Stability or Chaos? The Role of Omar Suleiman in the Egyptian Political Game
February 9, 2011 • Chris
Protests in Egypt have saturated the news media in recent weeks after a Facebook movement blind-sided the Egyptian government, political opposition, and the West. While opposing political interests initially struggled to catch up with the pulse of the public protest, those groups are now making demands and sparking the real struggle for power in Egypt.
Enter the most important actor in this political game: Vice President Omar Suleiman.
Although most of the press focus remains on the embattled President Hosni Mubarak, Suleiman is arguably now the most powerful man in Egypt. As Egypt’s intelligence chief and Mubarak’s consigliere abroad, Suleiman claims powerful connections to the military and the West. He is also the only public mediator between Mubarak and domestic political opposition.
Right now, the world wants to know where Egypt is headed, and we can begin to answer some of these questions using Recorded Future’s open source intelligence tools. By analyzing the personal history and public statements of Omar Suleiman, we can assemble a better idea of what Egyptian politics may look like in the coming weeks.
The first question we must ask is, who is Omar Suleiman?
The above treemap from Recorded Future provides some detail of Suleiman’s past and current government roles – vice president, deputy, intelligence chief, possible transitional president – as well as his political role internationally given the connections to Gaza, Israel, Jerusalem, Middle East, United States, and Washington.
Most important to note are his strong ties to the Egyptian military. In any state experiencing political instability, the role of the military is a key factor in that nation’s future. Military governments are typically good at seizing power and maintaining stability but poor at implementing democratic reforms.
This is where Omar Suleiman’s role as mediator between the opposition and Mubarek’s government is crucial. Is he politically savvy beyond the military? Does he have enough political clout to help implement a transitional government?
Looking beyond the general coverage and into political and communication events tied to Suleiman over the last twelve months on a timeline we can identify some early indicators of the Egyptian political state today.
Particularly interesting from the above results are two events. The first comes from an LA Times geopolitical blog entry published back in September 2010 highlighting President Mubarak’s squashing of public efforts to promote Suleiman as a presidential candidate.
Mubarak’s quelling of such discussion probably stemmed plans for his son Gamal to assume power as well as Suleiman’s military connections. Recall that when the protests first began, Mubarak’s police forces were routed and the military stepped in to take control, and while the military ultimately supports Mubarak, it is still more respected among the people than the police forces.
Separately, we find talk of what a Suleiman transitional government would look like as early as September 17. Citing an Oxford Analytica publication, the article gives us a good summary of what is unfolding today:
“Yet the idea of a transitional presidency (Suleiman is already 75) backed by the armed forces does have followers, including among parts of the opposition. Should regime and popular opposition to Gamal be strong enough, there would be a reasonable likelihood of this scenario unfolding — especially if army intervention were required to contain protests.”
Other reports focus on opposition respect for Suleiman: “Opposition leader Mohamed El Baradei, a former U.N. atomic energy chief and Nobel peace laureate, said he respects Suleiman as a possible negotiating partner.”
Suleiman’s Ties to the West and Foreign Policy
Before the crisis in Egypt, Suleiman embarked on a foreign policy tour in October-November that included Jordan, Israel, and the United States. Below is a network of his personal travel during 2010 as reported in online media.
From statements around these events we can gather some information about his foreign policy views. We find he is staunchly opposed to Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood while supportive of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. As such, Omar Suleiman is backed by the Obama administration because he is favorable to Western interests in the Middle East.
Looking at travel and political events available in the open source, we see a noticeable drop off after his aforementioned international duties before a flurry of activity surrounding his appointment to vice president and further consolidation of foreign policy responsibilities.
The government and the opposition are currently locked in political negotiation. While this untangles, the future of Egypt in the short term hinges mostly on the reaction of the military to the protesters. If the military starts firing, the country could descend into even greater chaos. However, this does not the most likely outcome.
Using Recorded Future we have learned that Omar Suleiman (the public face of Mubarak’s government) is a veteran politician with strong ties to the Egyptian military and some support among opposition leaders. He also has some of the best qualities the West could hope for in a crisis: strong Western and military ties, a history of international diplomacy, and at least light popular support.
Omar Suleiman’s main goal is stability in Egypt, and if he continues to lead the negotiation process and the military follows his lead, then the current government should manage to retain power over the coming weeks.