So, life is strange, and individual destiny as well. The Egyptian strongman, the man behind the curtains, the secret services’ chief, the protagonist of all the negotiations involving Israel and the Palestinians suddenly died. Far away from his country, in a hospital in Cleveland. Omar Suleyman was laid to rest yesterday. Thousands attended his military funeral service, not accidentally held in Nasr City. The Cairene suburb has a strong military presence, in terms of residents and army-linked economic activities. Funeral’s pictures are available online, and it is unsurprising, for people like me who used to live in Cairo, to ‘recognise’ the kind of people crying and mourning Omar Suleyman… Many of those men had the same faces I saw on Cairo’s bridges when Hosni Mubarak’s convoy used to paralyze Egypt’s centre of economic, cultural, social life. Those men where – so to say - protecting the president, the regime and the power from the people, and they were protecting also their salary. In thousands were on the bridges and everywhere, controlling each minute of the life of the Egyptian people.
Suddenly, Omar Suleyman disappeared from the Middle Eastern political, strategic, security scene. Controversial and powerful, the ex spy chief has been considered, for dozens of years, increasingly the strongest man in Egypt.. The man behind everything important. It was not by chance that it was he, Omar Suleyman, who tried to save the regime after the January 25th, 2011 uprising. Although he was a staunch opponent of the Muslim Brotherhood, he tried surprisingly to negotiate with the Ikhwan a sort of agreement in the days that followed the January, 25th, 2011, probably with the goal to split the revolutionary front and to remain the Egyptian political future’s decider.
Some among the Ikhwan leaders decided to negotiate with Omar Suleyman, although Tahrir Square strongly opposed any compromise with a man accused to be the strategist of the regime’s repression against its opponents. At that stage, the revolution won, and I still hear the baritone voice of Omar Suleyman, I still see his extremely strained face when he announced on February, 11th, “In the Name of God, the Compassionate” that Hosni Mubarak stepped down from the presidency.
After that, we all did not hear so much about Omar Suleyman. Some news regarding his trip to Saudi Arabia for his pilgrimage. Some news and rumours about his relationship with American think tanks. And then, all of a sudden, news about his will to be a candidate for the presidency. Whatever we – as analysts – thought about his important, fundamental role in the counter-revolution, he played a leading role in the years before. A leading role in the regime’s strategy on internal matters (i.e. against the Muslim Broterhood and the opposition) and on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well. He was the arbiter of all the negotiation tables. At least, a controversial figure. So controversial that president Mohammed Morsy did not attend his funeral service. So controversial that a debate arouse in Egypt on the decision to prepare for him a military funeral.
Following are some sentences from my book on Hamas, American version (Seven Stories Press, 2012). Omar Suleyman’s name recurs many times, throughout the text, due to his role not only in reaching truces and deals between Israel and Hamas, but also in delaying the Palestinian reconciliation
Since the beginning of the reconciliation process between Fatah and Hamas, Egypt had functioned less as a neutral mediator and more as one of the parties. A long-standing supporter of Fatah, Cairo had since 2005 undergone a difficult and delicate transition to democracy linked to the question of who would succeed President Hosni Mubarak, a crisis that led to the January 25, 2011, revolution. This internal political instability made Egypt even more sensitive to what happened in the region, however, especially when political Islam entered the institutional game through Hamas. Hamas stemmed from the same predecessor group as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the only real competitor of the then-ruling party, the National Democratic Party. Thus the reconciliation between Fatah (the party Egypt had always supported) and Hamas (an Islamist movement strengthened by both an electoral victory and by the complete control of Gaza) was almost a matter of national policy to Cairo. “Egypt’s delicate domestic situation cannot withstand the emergence of a successful or partly successful Muslim Brotherhood inspired experiment anywhere in the Arab world, and certainly not on its very doorstep,” commented Khaled Hroub in his analysis of one of the most muddled chapters in the reconciliation process. The US diplomatic documents released by WikiLeaks during autumn 2010 make Egypt’s ambiguous role in the talks more clear.
Omar Suleyman adamantly explained Cairo’s priorities regarding the Palestinian question: “Egypt’s three primary objectives with the Palestinians were to maintain calm in Gaza, undermine Hamas, and build popular support for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.”
Not a neutral mediator, at least…