"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."