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Mubarak's choice for vice president a trusted aide

The advice may well have saved Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's life. Take the armored Mercedes, the intelligence chief is believed to have told him before a trip to Ethiopia 15 years ago in which Muslim militants fired on his convoy.
AP | By HT Correspondent, Cairo
UPDATED ON JAN 31, 2011 12:17 PM IST

The advice may well have saved Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's life. Take the armored Mercedes, the intelligence chief is believed to have told him before a trip to Ethiopia 15 years ago in which Muslim militants fired on his convoy. When Mubarak named Omar Suleiman as his vice president Saturday he may well have been hoping he could help save his political life, too, as tens of thousands of protesters demand his ouster.

Throughout his three decades of authoritarian rule, Mubarak had refused to name a vice president and was widely seen to be preparing his son Gamal to succeed him _ something widely opposed by Egyptians. Mubarak's choice of Suleiman as his No 2 seems calculated to take the pressure off and signal to the protesters that he may ultimately be open to some alternative transition of power, perhaps one that excludes his son.

The 74-year-old Suleiman, after rising through the ranks of the military, has been Egypt's intelligence chief for nearly two decades. He has never been one of the regime's highly visible, public figures. Instead, Suleiman has played a behind-the-scenes role as the top official in charge of some of the most important issues facing the Egyptian state.

He was entrusted with the critical relations with the United States, Israel, the Palestinians and neighboring Sudan. He has also been Egypt's point man in mediating between Israel and the Palestinians and between the rival Palestinian factions themselves. Suleiman was born in Qena in southern Egypt and graduated from Egypt's military academy as an infantry officer in 1955. He rose through the infantry ranks and was appointed deputy head of military intelligence in 1987. He became military intelligence chief in 1991 during the Gulf War, when Egypt was among the Arab forces that helped the US-led coalition drive Saddam Hussein's military out of Kuwait.

He rarely speaks to the media, but has increasingly been seen in photos shaking hands with world leaders and chatting with reporters. "He is a secretive man that keeps to himself," said Hossam Sweilam, a former military officer who was a year behind Suleiman at the academy and maintains contact with him. "He is known for his integrity and dedication ... and the president trusts totally and loves him."

Sweilam said one sign of how close the two men are is that one of Mubarak's grandsons, Omar, is named after Suleiman. But the episode that seems to have cemented the close relationship was the 1995 assassination attempt in Ethiopia by Islamic militants seeking to topple Mubarak's government in the 1990s.

According to several published accounts, including a biography by Egyptian journalist Mohamed Taima, it was Suleiman who pushed Mubarak to take an armored car even if it offended the Ethiopians, who insisted their security was enough for the visit. And when gunmen opened fire on the way from the airport, it was Suleiman who ordered the driver to quickly spin around.

Suleiman soon became one of Mubarak's closest aides. At the same time, he was trusted by the U.S. and Israel.
Many Egyptians, too, see him as a trusted figure who could halt plans to install the 47-year-old Gamal Mubarak as the next president.

In one of the leaked US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, Suleiman is said to "detest" the idea of Gamal as president.

Last fall, posters supporting Suleiman as a presidential candidate in elections later this year surfaced around Cairo for a few hours before they disappeared and newspapers that published them were confiscated. It was an embarrassment to the regime, and apparently to the man himself.

The campaigners behind the posters called Suleiman "the real alternative" to Mubarak in a sign that there is some popular support for a Mubarak-Suleiman transition.

Another US document made public by WikiLeaks and dated May 2007 reports that a purported personal friend of Suleiman said the spy chief was "deeply personally hurt" when Mubarak failed to make good on what he said was an earlier promise to name him vice president.

But appointing Suleiman now, some Egyptian observers say, could be too little too late. As protesters demand a change of regime, they have chanted slogans against the new vice president.

"Neither Mubarak, nor Suleiman; we want to choose for ourselves," protesters shouted.

Steven Cook, an Egypt specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations who has written about the country's military, said the move was clearly designed to set the stage for such a transition. "They will try to restore order through the threat of more coercion," he said. "This is not a guy who is terribly interested in democratic change. He is a security man and he is interested in order."

Taima, the Egyptian journalist who has written about Suleiman, said he may only be acceptable to the public if he is part of a negotiated transition of power that includes an interim government, a rewriting of the constitution and a fair election.

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