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Egypt's new vice-president has been crown-prince-in-waiting for years Add to ...

Omar Suleiman, the foreign-intelligence chief and polished mediator who is Egypt's new vice-president, has been a crown-prince-in-waiting behind President Hosni Mubarak for years.

In a region where political succession is often the result of nepotism, he is a solid Mubarak loyalist who never publicly showed the slightest interest in gaining political power for himself or his family.

As such, Mr. Suleiman was long seen as a potential transitional leader who not only could, but would, keep the seat of power warm for a different heir, Mr. Mubarak's son, Gamal. "What makes him attractive to the regime," an Egyptian business executive once jokingly said, "is that he has only daughters and no sons."

The massive demonstrations rocking Egypt rendered irrelevant any leisurely handover scenario that the Mubarak clan might once have had in mind.

Mr. Suleiman has now been thrust into the limelight as the stop-gap No. 2 man in Egypt, the Arab world's most populous nation and biggest military power. But he comes to the job abruptly, in mid-crisis and with his patron under intense international and domestic pressure to relinquish control before the country descends into chaos.

Mr. Suleiman, whose role evolved into that of national-security adviser and regional envoy over the past 15 years, remains much better known outside of Egypt than inside.

He is regarded in the West as a tough-minded broker in disputes between Palestinian factions and between Palestinians and Israelis. He has been Egypt's point man on its thorniest foreign-affairs questions, from its relations with Iran to its co-operation with murky American anti-terrorism tactics such as extraordinary rendition.

He has mediated for years between the moderate Palestinian government in the West Bank and the militant Hamas movement that controls the Gaza Strip, which borders Egypt, and he tried to arrange a ceasefire during Israel's bombardment of Gaza in late 2008.

Diplomats who have dealt with him describe him as likeable, urbane and a firm secularist who has nonetheless established credibility with Hamas despite its connection to Egypt's long-banned Muslim Brotherhood.

"He's got a back of steel," said Edward S. Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel.

Jane Meyer, who wrote a book on the Central Intelligence Agency's rendition program in the late 1990s, said Mr. Suleiman also "carries some controversial baggage from the standpoint of those looking for a clean slate on human rights."

Writing on the website of the New Yorker magazine, she said he was the CIA's "point man in Egypt" on renditions, which involved the secret transfer of terror suspects for interrogation to Egypt and other countries known for the brutality of their security forces.

Mr. Suleiman acknowledges that Egypt's widely feared police are "over-reaching," but he also sees Islamic fundamentalism as a threat, Mr. Walker said in a telephone interview. "Don't get me wrong," he added. "He's got some moderation but he's not a liberal. He's not a democrat."

Mr. Suleiman, like Mr. Mubarak and every powerful Egyptian since the monarchy was overthrown in 1952, came up through the ranks of the pampered and powerful military.

He was born in the isolated town of Qena in Upper Egypt, a conservative rural area in the southern part of the country. At the age of 19, he won a place at the elite Military Academy and, like other promising officers of the time, was then sent to Moscow for additional training.

Like Mr. Mubarak, he fought in the 1967 and 1973 wars with Israel, and also served in Egypt's war in Yemen in 1962. He became the director of the Egyptian General Intelligence Services in the early 1990s, after serving as head of military intelligence.

In Egypt, as in other Arab countries, a career in the military or security services is usually a guarantee of a comfortable life.

To secure their loyalty, the kings and presidents of the region make sure their officers are well-paid and have access to the best hospitals and schools. In return, they are expected to support the status quo and to see their interests intersect with those of the people in power. Mr. Suleiman was not alone at the apex of the vast Egyptian security apparatus. The ministers of interior and defence, with their control over police and the military, head rival power centres.

But his personal bond with the President is unmatched. It was forged in 1995, when Mr. Suleiman's foresight was credited with saving Mr. Mubarak from assassination by Islamic extremists during a visit to Ethiopia.

It was Mr. Suleiman, as the story goes, who insisted that the Egyptian leader bring an armoured car with him rather than depend on the less-secure vehicle promised by his hosts. When his motorcade was ambushed as it left the Addis Ababa airport, Mr. Mubarak escaped unharmed. So did Mr. Suleiman, who was sitting next to him.

Relations between the two men may have cooled somewhat in recent years, as Gamal Mubarak skyrocketed to the head of the national party and positioned himself as the President's political heir.

Last September, soon after supporters of Mr. Mubarak's son tested the waters with a publicity campaign promoting him as "the hope of the poor," posters appeared briefly in Cairo calling Mr. Suleiman "the alternative."

Security forces quickly blocked any coverage of the anonymous pro-Suleiman posters, according to Amnesty International.

Mr. Suleiman, Mr. Mubarak's "consigliere," harboured no ambition to rule the country for the long term and his loyalty to the President was "rock solid," according to a 2010 diplomatic cable from the American embassy in Cairo and recently made public by WikiLeaks.

But someone who claimed to be a close personal friend told the embassy that Mr. Suleiman was miffed that the Egyptian leader never followed through on a promise, made in calmer times, to name him vice-president - until now.

 

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