Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak arrived in Washington today, bringing with him a large retinue of advisors, ministers, and assorted hangers-on. But only two of them really count, at least for those trying to figure out who will succeed one of the Middle East's longest-serving leaders.
The first is Mubarak's son Gamal, who is accompanying his father even though he has no formal position in the Egyptian government. (He is the assistant secretary-general of the ruling National Democratic Party, or NDP.) A more justified member of the entourage is Omar Suleiman, the head of Egypt's General Intelligence Service (GIS), known as the Mukhabarat.
Each has been touted for most of the past decade as a potential heir to the 81-year-old Mubarak, who has never appointed a vice president or publicly stated his preference for a successor. Most speculation in Egypt focuses on Gamal. His rise to political prominence earlier this decade spurred opposition figures to form the "Kefaya" movement, which rallies against both Mubaraks. But many well-informed Egyptians think the next president will come from the military -- and that the powerful Suleiman is the most likely candidate.
This is not a fringe sentiment. The prolonged fin de régime mood has unnerved many Egyptians, who worry that a Syrian-style inheritance-of-power scenario would usher in an era of instability. Many consider the prospect of such father-to-son nepotism humiliating for a country that has long claimed the mantle of Arab leadership. In this political environment -- in which democratic alternatives are locked out, but the population wants change -- Suleiman appears the only viable alternative to Gamal Mubarak. But who is this once-mysterious power player? And would he really mean a new era for Egypt?
Like the elder Mubarak, Suleiman rose to national prominence through the armed forces. The arc of his career followed the arc of Egypt's political history. He attended the Soviet Union's Frunze Military Academy in the 1960s -- as Mubarak did a few years earlier -- and became an infantryman. He then took part in the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars, likely as a staff officer. When Cairo switched its strategic alliance from Moscow to Washington, he received training at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare School and Center at Fort Bragg, N.C., in the 1980s. Suleiman continues to have privileged contacts with U.S. intelligence and military officials, with whom he has now been dealing for at least a quarter-century.
As the head of the Mukhabarat, Suleiman's political and military portfolio is vast. The GIS 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. It also includes some functions unique to authoritarian regimes, such as monitoring Egypt's security apparatus for signs of internal coups. It is an elite institution, with a long reach inside government as well as abroad. It also crosses over the civilian and military worlds: Suleiman is one of a rare group of Egyptian officials who hold both a military rank (lieutenant general) and a civilian office (he is a cabinet minister, though he rarely attends meetings).
Traditionally, the identity of the head of the GIS is kept secret. But after 2001, when Suleiman began to take over key dossiers from the Foreign Ministry, his name and photograph began appearing in Al-Ahram, the staid government-owned daily. He even appeared on the top half of the front page, a space usually reserved for Mubarak. Since then, his high-profile assignments have garnered high-profile coverage. He has intervened in civil wars in Sudan, patched up the tiff between Saudi King Abdullah and Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi over the latter's alleged attempt to assassinate the former, and put pressure on Syria to stop meddling in Lebanon and to dissociate itself from Iran.
Most importantly, Suleiman has mediated in the Israel-Palestine conflict, Egypt's most pressing national security priority. Since the June 2007 Hamas takeover of Gaza, Cairo has acted as an interlocutor and mediator between Hamas and Fatah. Although its attempts to reconcile the two groups have led to few clear victories -- in part, perhaps, because Egypt is clearly hostile to the Islamists -- its foreign policy has won the approval of the United States and the European Union.