Hamas' taking control of Gaza was a major setback for Suleiman, whose agents had, until that point, played an important role in the territory. His attempts at Palestinian reconciliation, which petered out by December 2008, were also unsuccessful, prompting some diplomats to wonder if his reputation was undeserved. But since last winter's Gaza war, Suleiman has regained standing. Egypt emerged out of that conflict once again with its role confirmed as an essential mediator in the Middle East peace process. Indeed, Suleiman is now arguably the region's most important troubleshooter -- Foreign Policy recently listed him as one of the most powerful spooks in the Middle East.
It isn't surprising, then, that he is so often described as a likely successor to Mubarak, who is showing increasingly signs of frailty. Every president of Egypt since 1952 has been a senior military officer, and the military remains, by most measures, the most powerful institution in Egypt.
Publicly, Suleiman has started to gain endorsements for the job from Egyptians across the political spectrum as the increasingly public discussion plays out of who will follow Mubarak. A leftist leader of the Kefaya movement, Abdel Halim Qandil, has urged the military to save the country from a Mubarak dynasty. The liberal intellectual Osama Ghazali Harb -- a former Gamal acolyte who turned to the opposition and founded the National Democratic Front party -- has openly advocated a military takeover followed by a period of "democratic transition." Hisham Kassem, head of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, also has stated that a Suleiman presidency would be vastly preferable to another Mubarak one. On Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, partisans of a Suleiman presidency make the same argument, often seemingly driven as much by animosity toward the Mubaraks as admiration for the military man.
But amendments made in 2005 and 2007 to the Egyptian Constitution's provisions for presidential elections might have rendered Suleiman's candidacy moot. Active-duty military officers are not allowed membership in political parties, meaning Suleiman would have to retire before running. Then, candidates must be members of their party's highest internal body for at least one year before the election, a significant obstacle for Suleiman. Plus, it is virtually impossible for independent candidates to run; to get on the ballot, candidates must garner the support of numerous elected officials, most of whom are NDP members and presumably loyal to Gamal Mubarak. And, finally, the NDP is a powerful electoral machine, closely connected to security services at the local and national level.
In other words, most Suleiman supporters recognize that to gain the presidency he would most likely have to carry out a coup -- perhaps a soft, constitutional one, but a coup nonetheless. (It is possible, one analyst told me, that "the day Mubarak dies there will be tanks on the street.") Strange though it sounds, many Egyptians would find such a coup acceptable. The amendments to the Constitution were broadly viewed as illegitimate, and the regime's standing may be at an all-time low.
Such a coup would prove more problematic for Egypt's foreign allies. Washington would likely be embarrassed by the rise of a new strongman, particularly after nearly a decade of fanfare around democracy promotion in Egypt. But what would the United States do about it, particularly if the plotters were pro-American and the strongman broadly supported?
Other scenarios are possible, of course. Gamal Mubarak could successfully make his bid for the presidency and keep Suleiman in place -- perhaps as the power behind the throne, or simply a guarantor of the military's corporate interests. Some previously unknown military figure could emerge as a contender. Or Hosni Mubarak could hang on to power, running again in 2011 at the ripe old age of 83. (Suleiman will be 75.)
Lost in this Egyptian Kremlinology is the fact that neither Gamal Mubarak nor Omar Suleiman presents a clear departure from the present state of affairs. Neither offers the new social contract that so many of Egypt's 80 million citizens are demanding in strikes and protests. The prevalence of the Gamal vs. Omar debate, more than anything, highlights the low expectations ordinary Egyptians have for a democratic succession to Hosni Mubarak's 28-year reign. Those low expectations come with their own quiet tyranny, too.