CAIRO, Egypt — Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s former chief of intelligence and one of the US government’s most ruthless allies in the “war on terror,” died Wednesday while undergoing treatment at a Cleveland hospital.
Suleiman, 76, was one of the most trusted senior officials in the ousted regime of Hosni Mubarak, presiding for years over the country’s feared General Intelligence Directorate, or mukhabarat.
Living largely in seclusion the popular revolt in 2011 that tore apart the Egyptian police state, Suleiman emerged earlier this year as a controversial candidate for Egypt’s presidency, citing his fear of Islamist rule.
Though he commanded a loyal group of supporters, and despite his ties to the previous regime, a presidential commission disqualified Suleiman for failing to produce the required number of signatures.
It is Suleiman’s role as a shadowy and imposing intelligence chief, both at home and among a global network of spy agencies, that will likely define his legacy.
Suleiman’s secretive intelligence agency for years hunted, oppressed and tortured Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and other local Islamist groups.
“The entire regime was against us, but Omar Suleiman in particular took up arms against us and was constantly threatening us,” said Karim Radwan, a Muslim Brotherhood leader in Cairo.
Because of his history tracking the Brotherhood, he was handpicked by the CIA to help run the “extraordinary rendition” program, in which terror suspects were transferred to Egypt and other countries to be interrogated — and, in many cases, tortured — outside US jurisdiction.
“Our intelligence collaboration with Omar Suleiman is now probably the most successful element of the [US-Egypt] relationship,” read a 2006 US State Department memo released by Wikileaks.
In 2003, prior to the US invasion of Iraq, Suleiman’s mukhabarat interrogated detained Al Qaeda commander Ibn Sheikh Al Libi. During the interrogation, which reports say included torture, Al Libi confessed that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq provided Al Qaeda with chemical weapons training.
The information was one of the primary sources used by the George W. Bush administration to justify the war in Iraq, though Al-Libi later retracted his confession.
Unusually for an intelligence chief here, Suleiman revealed both his name and his face to the Egyptian public, openly mediating between Palestinian groups and Israel.
Born in the Egyptian province of Qena, which hosts a sizeable Coptic Christian minority, Suleiman painted himself as a fierce opponent of radical Islamist forces and as a staunch ally of Israel and the United States.
“There is a black box of secrets regarding Mubarak, and Egyptian, Israeli, Palestinian and American relations that has disappeared with him,” said Amir Salem, a prominent Egyptian human rights lawyer.
The US government and domestic political circles — because of his strong command over the intelligence services, his international relationships and years of military service — considered Suleiman a possible successor to the presidency prior to the uprising that toppled Mubarak.
But protesters rejected Suleiman as a potential leader when Mubarak appointed him vice president on Jan. 29, 2011 — in the midst of the anti-regime demonstrations, which sought the end of the regime and everyone associated with it.
Suleiman is expected to receive the honors of a military funeral in Cairo on Friday. Some reports say Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and member of the Muslim Brotherhood will attend the memorial.
Despite the enmity between Suleiman and the Islamists, the Brotherhood’s Radwan said Morsi respects him in death.
“In Islam, gloating about someone’s death is not permissible,” Radwan said. “And the dead must be respected.”
Heba Habib contributed reporting from Cairo, Egypt.