Tales of Omar Suleiman

Egypt's feared domestic enforcer is dead, but not the regime he left behind.

"I am responsible for the stability of Egypt," Lt. Gen. Omar Suleiman said, his voice rising as his large fist slammed on the table to accentuate the point. That was my first experience with Suleiman, then President Hosni Mubarak's spy chief and all-seeing eye of Horus. It was the spring of 2005, and I was seated around a conference table in downtown Washington with a group of people far more senior than I. The conversation over stale bagels and bad coffee that morning  dealt mostly with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The fist-on-table incident came at the end of the hour, when someone brought up the possibility of democratic change in Egypt -- almost as an afterthought.

On July 19, Suleiman died of a heart attack while undergoing medical tests in a Cleveland hospital. He had been suffering from amyloidosis, a chronic disease related to abnormal protein deposits in tissue that affects the heart and liver, and his sudden passing came as a shock to his enemies and admirers alike.

Suleiman's dismissal of reform was just as startling. It wasn't just the sound of his ample fist hitting the faux oak, but because his rejection of the idea was so straightforward. Even early in the days of President George W. Bush's "Freedom Agenda," Egyptian officials had become adept at bobbing and weaving their way through conversations about political change. It was a game in which they refused to say yes or no. But Suleiman -- the man closest to the apex of power in Egypt save members of the Mubarak family itself -- was having none of it.

The perspective of Omar Pasha, an honorific title dating back to Egypt's Ottoman period, was perfectly consistent with everything that I had read (not much), or heard (mostly rumor), and subsequently learned about the man. He -- like the president he served -- emphatically believed that he understood Egypt better than anyone. This conviction, which all too often was expressed through manipulation, coercion, and the use of violence, was to be his political undoing.

Suleiman and I were hardly friends, and I certainly didn't know him personally, but he graciously accepted my requests for meetings. Between the spring of 2005 and Jan. 24, 2011 -- the eve of the revolution, and the last time I saw him -- I met Suleiman four times: twice in one-on-one interviews, once with another colleague, and once more in a group setting. Through Egyptian friends of friends and Americans who knew him, Suleiman graciously accepted my requests for off-the-record interviews. This took a certain amount of ingratiation, though I never let it compromise my moral compass.

I can't tell anyone where exactly the General Intelligence Service, Egypt's foreign and domestic intelligence organ that was the seat of Suleiman's power, is located other than it is in the posh Cairo suburb of Heliopolis. Unlike in the movies where visitors are hooded before entering a secret or sensitive location, I guess the Egyptians just thought they would confuse me before my first private audience with Omar Pasha. It worked: I was driven around for 30 minutes, doubling back and forth, going in circles, and speeding through unfamiliar neighborhoods until I completely lost my bearings. When the car finally passed through massive steel gates, I was in a pristine compound with grass and trees. There were other buildings, but not a soul to be seen.

I was driven up to the first building and told to wait in the car. Eventually, two men in uniforms that I had never seen before met me and motioned to follow them into the building, where I was handed off to another uniformed officer who brought me up a few floors in a carpeted elevator, where I was then met by an affable man in a very nice navy blue suit. He took me to a large waiting room with bright lights, gaudy furniture, and large murals of Egypt's military triumphs from antiquity to the crossing of the Suez Canal in October 1973. After what seemed like forever, the same man in the blue suit escorted me to what can only be described as a fairly understated, American-style living room with bookshelves, a couch, a large easy chair, and two arm chairs at the end of a coffee table. I was asked to sit at the end of the couch closest to the easy chair. Omar Pasha entered a few seconds later with two note takers in tow, and said in a deep voice, "Good morning."

Our conversation focused almost exclusively on foreign relations. He was deeply hostile to America's enemies in the Middle East, complaining bitterly that every time he thought he had a deal between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, the Syrians and Iranians would scuttle it. He also offered his view that the United States, Egypt, and other friendly countries in the region should work together to keep "Iran busy with itself." His implication was clear -- Egyptian intelligence, the CIA, Mossad, Saudi intelligence and others should engage in clandestine operations to destabilize the clerical regime in Tehran.

Suleiman's hawkish language was part and parcel of a larger shift in Egyptian rhetoric in the late Mubarak era. In those years, the Egyptians were always looking for ways to make themselves useful to Washington besides tangling with Hamas, participating in renditions of terrorist suspects, and being the occasional caterer for talks between Israelis and Palestinians. Omar Pasha did not take my bait to discuss domestic Egyptian politics, and when my 60 minutes were up, he excused himself and left with his note takers. The man in the blue suit then returned me to the elevator and everything played out in reverse.

The drill was exactly the same on my subsequent visits, during which Suleiman invariably steered the conversation to foreign affairs. He was expansive on the various challenges on the Palestinian front -- President Mahmoud Abbas's weakness and Hamas's connection to what he later infamously called the "Brothers Muslimhood." For all the lore about his close ties with the Israelis, he harangued me in one meeting that the Israelis were whipping up anti-Egyptian sentiment in Congress with videos of smuggling across the Gaza border. He also resented Turkish efforts to mediate between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, complaining that the Turks didn't understand Hamas. That may well be true, but Suleiman was also clearly annoyed that Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was encroaching on Egyptian turf.

The last time I saw Omar Pasha was on Jan. 24, 2011 -- on the eve of the Egyptian revolution. I was with a group of foreign-policy experts, business leaders, and philanthropists and we met in an auditorium at the GIS headquarters. It was hard not to notice the freaky, yoga studio-like music that was playing over the sound system. When Suleiman arrived, he sat alone on a dais and spoke into a microphone, even though the delegation numbered only about 25 people seated in the second row of the auditorium, behind a gaggle of GIS courtiers. During the meeting, we learned that the United States had supplied Egypt with the technology to turn off the Internet -- something the Egyptians would employ in earnest, though not terribly effectively, less than 24 hours later.

By Jan. 24, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had already fallen and a wave of self-immolations in Egypt had led to widespread speculation about whether the revolution was headed east. Naturally, therefore, someone in our delegation asked Suleiman whether the Tunisian revolt could happen in his country. But even at this late hour, he was as contemptuous of change as he had been six years ago, when he slammed his first down on the Washington conference table. "No," he responded. "The police have a strategy and the president is strong." Even at the time, the hubris was astonishing.

A little more than two weeks later, it was an ashen-faced Suleiman who brought the Mubarak era to a formal end in a short televised address. "Citizens, in these difficult circumstances the country is going through, President Mohamed Hosni Mubarak has decided to leave his position as president of the republic, and has entrusted the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to administer the nation's affairs," he said.

Some of my Egyptian friends still have a hard time processing the fact that Suleiman was unable to quell the Egyptian uprising. To them, this was a man who -- despite being shrouded in secrecy -- loomed impossibly large. Wasn't he was a master manipulator, a man to be feared? After all, he had kept the Muslim Brotherhood down, brutalized the regime's other opponents, served as the trusted interlocutor of Americans and Israelis alike, and was on the short list of Hosni Mubarak's possible successors. For some Egyptians, it is hard to make sense of the fact that Suleiman turned out to be more Wizard of Oz than Dark Lord of the Sith.

Omar Pasha's failure to put a stop the uprising was a direct result of his arrogant conceit that people power could never threaten the regime. His bellicose conviction that he alone could work Egypt's levers of power was ultimately misplaced: In the end, he misunderstood his own people, who ultimately refused to submit to the brutal methods that Suleiman had worked to perfect.

I cannot say that I will miss Omar Pasha, but in an important way I am glad to have met him. By granting me an audience, by being unfailingly polite, by answering my questions, he gave me some insight into how he thought -- and thus how the regime thought and justified its actions. I know he believed his endless attempts at manipulation and coercion were acts of patriotism, but that is hard to justify given his complicity in the Mubarak regime's sundry crimes and abuses.

Suleiman's death has provoked a sense of satisfaction -- even glee -- among some of the Mubarak regime's opponents. That is understandable, but the happiness is misplaced. He was just the product of a system that has yet to be overturned. Whatever energy is expended celebrating his death is wasted at the expense of building a new political order.



Numbers Game

Why big, rich, and communist is the way to Olympic glory.

The Olympic motto, "Citius, Altius, Fortius" (faster, higher, stronger) might be good inspiration for an athlete training for the games, but for a nation looking for Olympic glory, a more useful dictum might be "maior, ditiores, communistarum" -- bigger, richer, communist. While upsets are always possible in any individual event, the factors that make a nation an Olympic powerhouse are pretty clear, and it's surprisingly easy to predict which countries will come out on top.

Shortly before the 2000 Sydney Olympics, two economics papers appeared within days of each other looking at the determinants of gold medal success. Remarkably, both came to virtually the same conclusion about what makes a nation an Olympic champion. Ever since then, the lead authors of each paper, Andrew Bernard of Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business and Daniel Johnson of Colorado College, have been using these factors to make predictions before each Olympics, sometimes with uncanny accuracy.

"When we compared [the final medal count] with the expected result in 2000 we thought we had made a horrendous error. It was like a .96 correlation. You don't get that sort of result in an economic model," says Johnson. But Johnson soon realized this shouldn't actually be that surprising at all, as overall Olympic success is remarkably predictable. By far, the most important factors are population size and gross domestic product (GDP) per capita.

The models don't look at individual athletes or sports, but national team performance as a whole. "Olympic athletes are like complex machines. The more people there are, the more machines there are. The more resources-per-person each country has, the more these machines can be invested in and turned into Olympic athletes," says Emily Williams, a recent MBA graduate from Tuck and Ph.D. candidate at London Business School who has taken over the work on Bernard's model for predicting the London games. GDP, in particular, is a large part of why the United States holds a nearly insurmountable lead in the all-time count with 2,296 medals --  whereas Russia/Soviet Union comes in a distant second at 1,327. (Russia's historical performance is perhaps more impressive given its much lower GDP and population figures and it also holds a clue as to what can make a nation punch above its weight.)

This may seem intuitive enough, but there are a couple of other ways a country can gain a leg up. One is to actually host the games. This might be partly due to home-field advantage -- less travel, familiarity with the facilities -- and partly because the host country tends to field more athletes, but it's also because countries tend to invest more in sports generally when they host the games. Whether or not countries actually make money on the Olympics, hosting can be a powerful signaling mechanism for a country looking to prove its place in the global economy. And that signal ideally includes fielding competitive athletes in addition to building shiny new stadiums. Greece, for instance, took home 16 medals in 2004, when it hosted the Athens games, but only four in Beijing.

One other factor that both papers found helps countries rake in the medals is a bit more surprising: communism. Throughout the Cold War, when medal counts became a matter of not just national but ideological pride, communist governments like the Soviet Union and East Germany were able to much more efficiently allocate government resources to build sporting powerhouses and consistently outperformed predictions made on size and GDP alone. This wasn't just true for the Eastern Bloc. Cuba, for instance has won more than twice as many summer Olympic medals as Brazil, despite having only a fraction of its wealth and population.

Given these factors -- size, wealth, host, communist (or at least single-party) -- China's impressive performance at the 2008 games (100 medals, 51 of which were gold) was hardly surprising. "You would almost expect them to run the table," says Johnson. But China actually outperformed the models. Johnson's model predicted 79 medals for China in 2008, while Bernard's gave it 81. According to Johnson, China has been "historically the most difficult country to predict."

The only other country in China's heavyweight population division -- India -- has historically been one of the Olympics' great underperformers, with only 20 summer medals all-time. That's tied with Slovakia, which has only been a country since 1993 and has .4 percent of India's population. The world's largest democracy has never really made sports spending a priority. Plus, several of the sports that Indians do excel at internationally like cricket and squash aren't Olympic events. Johnson's model predicts 7 medals for India in the 2012, though it won only three in Beijing.

The country that most consistently outperforms expectations is Australia, which has the most medals per capita over the last three games. Yes, Australia is traditionally a sporting culture and the fact that 85 percent of the country lives within 30 miles of the ocean may contribute to their historic dominance in swimming. But it also shouldn't be surprising to learn that after a disappointing zero gold medal performance in 1976, the Australian government embarked on a massive centralized training program to spur Olympic glory -- modeled on the youth sports academies of the Eastern Bloc. Ahead of the 2000 Sydney games, the country spent $20 million on scientific research aimed at improving its athletes' performance. Australia might be a democracy, but since the 1980s, it's taken a near-Soviet approach to preparing for the Olympics -- and it's been among the top 10 medal count nations since 1992, including an impressive 58-medal performance in Sydney.

So what do the numbers predict for London? Johnson's prediction has the United States in first place with 99 medals. Russia, which underperformed its prediction by 11 medals last time, will still be second with 82. China will come in third with 67 medals, though it will win more golds than Russia (but 67 medals would likely be a major disappointment after the Beijing haul). And homefield advantage will boost Britain into fourth place with 45. This year, Johnson is de-emphasizing the communist metric of the equation because the sample size is so small in the post-Cold War world; so it may be interesting to watch what that means for countries like Cuba and Vietnam.

Williams, using Bernard's formula, which has historically been more accurate (because it includes by far the best indicator for medal count: who won last year), has the same top four but in a different order. She gives the United States 103 medals, followed by China with 94, and Russia with 67. Her projections are more optimistic for her home country, Britain -- which is predicted to bag 62 medals, its highest count since the London games of 1908, when it won nearly half the medals awarded.

There's also a new kid on the block in the medals prediction game. Using an expanded series of metrics that includes "political conditions, macroeconomic stability, macroeconomic conditions, human capital, technology and the microeconomic environment," economists at Goldman Sachs have produced their own predicted medal table giving the U.S. 108 medals, 98 for China, 74 for Russia, and 65 for Britain.

Accurate as these models are, it's the deviations from the mean that make the Olympics fun. Watching Michael Phelps trounce the rest of the world in the pool might be fun for a while, but without the possibility of an upset, who would watch? Williams predicts that the most interesting story in the next few Olympics may not be China, but smaller developing countries that are slowly increasing their share of the medal count.

"I'm glad the model's not always accurate," Johnson says. "Otherwise we could just mail out the medals in advance."

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