If ever a man knew too much, it was Omar Suleiman. The most powerful spymaster in the Middle East, Mubarak’s black box, the C.I.A.’s rendition agent in
intermediary. The head of Egypt’s
dread Mukhabarat, a spy chief so powerful that his very identity was unknown to
the average Egyptian until he chose to go public a few years ago. The
Intelligence Chief who, when asked by the C.I.A. to provide a DNA sample from
the brother of Ayman Zawahiri, the Al Qaeda leader, offered instead to send
them the man’s entire arm.
No wonder that the out-of-the-blue announcement of Suleiman’s sudden death, purportedly at the Cleveland Clinic in
Ohio when he
was supposed to be in the Emirates, unleashed a flood of conspiracy theories
worthy of a John Le Carré novel.
I sat a table away from Omar Suleiman at a wedding in February, by sheer chance. This was a year after Mubarak’s downfall, and a couple of months before Suleiman briefly and unsuccessfully ran for president of
Egypt. It struck me then what a
physically small man he was, in person, but how he commanded deference from his
entourage. It was testament enough to his power that, in the year that elapsed
since the January Revolution, in spite of Suleiman’s sulfurous reputation, in
spite of his closeness to Mubarak, he was never at risk of being tried, let
alone jailed, as so many ministers and other powerful regime figures were. The
inescapable conclusion was that Suleiman knew so much about enough people to be
untouchable. Even the news media seemed too cowed to touch him.
At the wedding we both attended, at tables nearby, there were a few sotto voce jokes about: “Where is the man behind Omar Suleiman?” A reference to the indelible, notorious television image of his pale and haunted face announcing Mubarak’s resignation on February 11th 20111, while behind his chair a stone-faced, burly man in glasses stood guard. Some, at the time, wondered if Suleiman were being coerced into reading the resignation announcement, but if ever a man had a face designed by nature to deliver mournful news or be painted by El Greco, it was Omar Suleiman.
Pity he wasn’t available to announce his own demise. Although there are plenty of conspiracy theories to suggest that he may well have been. After all, the circumstances are ripe for intrigue. First Suleiman’s two daughters precede him out of Egypt, then he himself is reported to have left for the Emirates; then it is suddenly announced that he had been at the Cleveland Clinic all along and that, although he was well when he checked in, he died during treatment. That doesn’t say much for the Cleveland Clinic. On the other hand, if Suleiman, like his former boss Mubarak, was trying to stage a temporary death- who can forget Mubarak’s miraculous resurrection in June, when he rapidly progressed backward from ‘clinically dead’ to ‘comatose’ to ‘stable’ to ‘commenting on the elections’ in three short days?
If Suleiman were trying to engineer a convenient disappearance beyond the reach of Egypt’s current Islamist-led government that might conceivably hold him accountable for ordering the torture of extradited Islamist suspects on behalf of the C.I.A., he could well have orchestrated his own ‘death’, with the connivance of his friends in the U.S. intelligence community, witness-protection style. Or there is a more sinister scenario possible: the man who knew too much may finally have known too much for his own good. Only John Le Carré could have dreamed this stuff up, but then truth can be stranger than fiction.