The appointment of Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman as vice-president underscores both the power of the country’s intelligence services in keeping the government in power and the deep influence the military has on policymaking in Cairo.
Egypt has three intelligence services: a foreign intelligence service, called the General Intelligence Service, often called the Mukhabarat; a Directorate of Military Intelligence and Reconnaissance, and a domestic agency called the State Security Investigations Service. The GIS is attached to the presidency – which accounts for Suleiman’s closeness to President Hosni Mubarak – military intelligence is under the Ministry of Defense, and the SSIS is under the Ministry of Interior.
By most accounts the GIS is first among equals among Egyptian intelligence agencies. Egyptian journalist Issandr Amrani has described the GIS as an organization that “combines the intelligence-gathering elements of the CIA, the counterterrorism role of the FBI, the protection duties of the Secret Service and the high-level diplomacy of the State Department.”
The GIS has the president’s direct ear and deals in both foreign and domestic intelligence (the latter usually under the rubric of counterterrorism), although the SSIS is also an engine of internal security and, critics say, repression. Jurisdictional lines are often blurred, which, analysts say, often leads to bureaucratic rivalry and duplication – not anything new in any country that has multiple intelligence bodies.
In 2009, Foreign Policy magazine named Suleiman, a serving army general, as the most powerful intelligence chief in the Middle East, wielding more clout than even the head of Israel’s Mossad, or the chief of Iran’s Quds Force, the external arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The CIA has had a long relationship with the GIS, dating back to the rule of General Gamal Abdel Nasser, who came to power in 1956. More recently, the U.S. has been grateful to Cairo for its quashing of Islamic extremism in Egypt.
But Gen. Suleiman has come under criticism in some quarters for his role in enabling CIA “renditions,” in which terrorism suspects were sent to third countries for sometimes harsh and brutal interrogation, as documented in Jane Mayer’s book “The Dark Side.” In a 2009 U.S. congressional hearing, former CIA officer Michael Scheuer, who headed the agency’s unit hunting Osama bin Laden, defended the practice of rendition as “the single most effective counterterrorism operation ever conducted by the United States Government.” But in the same hearing, he said that “there were no qualms at all about sending people to Cairo and kind of joking up our sleeves about what would happen to those people in Cairo in Egyptian prisons.”
Suleiman’s closeness to President Mubarak and his role as an intelligence chief make him a possible choice by the military to be at least an interim figure in some kind of transition. But those same factors appear to make him deeply unpalatable to the demonstrators demanding not only Mubarak’s ouster, but that of the president’s associates as well – and Omar Suleiman would be at the top of that list.