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Suleiman selection reassures Western allies

Clayton Swisher, second from left, at a Washington DC event with Omar Suleiman, second from rightBy Clayton Swisher

Omar Suleiman is many things to Egypt: spy chief, eminence grise to President Hosni Mubarak, point man for Egypt's secret relations with Israel, and the bulwark between the Muslim Brotherhood and all the security services that stand in its way. 

Now he is Egypt's unelected vice president.

Here I am in a photo next to General Suleiman circa spring 2005 when I was director of programs at the DC-based Middle East Institute. Standing with us are Egyptian ambassador to the US Nabil Fahmy and my boss at the time (and former US ambassador to Egypt) Ned Walker.  

General Suleiman was our guest of honor for a breakfast event. It was a coup that we were able to get him to speak, albeit amongst a closed, hand-selected audience of Washington's foreign policy "I love Egypt" elite. 

This was a first, Ambassador Fahmy reminded me, and looking back I understand why. Suleiman hates cameras and does his best to avoid media. But he was willing to swallow that bitter pill in order to get in front of Washington opinion makers, recognising the direction that regional politics was heading. 

It was just prior to the January 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, and Middle East policy watchers were well aware of the growing strength of Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The Egyptian ambassador probably wanted to spread Suleiman's message across town.  Everyone knows Egypt's fear of a strong Hamas inside the Strip, and the inspiration that could provide for the Muslim Brotherhood across the border is the preoccupation of Egyptian intelligence, using whatever repressive tactics. 

The event was not for attribution and thus I cannot quote him, even though his blunt words made me drop my biscuit. 

Suffice it to say he does not have a high opinion of Islam in politics, and is not shy about telling Western audiences the lengths he will go to allow his security services to keep the Muslim Brotherhood and their offshoots at bay. 

Granted, Suleiman was speaking in the post-9/11 atmosphere, and may have been trying to pander to the audience of policymakers and Egypt wonks. 

For me, President Mubarak's appointment of Suleiman is a way of messaging assurances to a wary state of Israel and US congress. But it also speaks the unspoken to Egypt's Islamic parties: don't even think about it. 

For anyone who wants to see where Suleiman came down in his envoy efforts between Fatah and Hamas on behalf of the Egyptian Government, have a look at the Palestine Papers between 2005-2007.

In reading the security minutes of the Palestinian Authority from this period, there is little doubt in my mind why Hamas viewed Suleiman a dishonest broker and an obstacle to real reconciliation. Of course, that is probably what Egypt intended by sending him.

Clayton Swisher, based in Doha, covers stories across the Middle East and further afield.

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