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Egypt's New Vice President is Washington's Proxy Torturer [Counterpoint Interview]

[Image from unknown archive] [Image from unknown archive]

After almost three weeks of intense street protests in Egypt demanding the removal of President Hosni Mubarak from power, more than 300 people were reported to have died in clashes between demonstrators, police and government supporters. Despite concessions such as Mubarak's pledge to not run in the presidential election scheduled for September and constitutional reform, the number of protesters in Tahrir Square in central Cairo swelled on Feb. 8. On that day, the crowd gave a hero's welcome to Wael Ghonim, a Google executive who had set up a Facebook page that many credit with inspiring the massive protests, after he was freed from 12 days in jail.

Four days after the protests began, embattled president Mubarak appointed Omar Suleiman his vice president, a man who had served as chief of Egypt's General Intelligence Service since 1993. A Mubarak loyalist, Suleiman has taken a leading role in the government's attempt to negotiate with Egypt's diverse civil society groups demanding Mubarak's immediate removal from office. Suleiman has met with representatives of the opposition to launch committees tasked with proposing constitutional reforms and a timetable for a peaceful transfer of power.

But there are many questions about the role Suleiman has played in the Mubarak regime. Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Lisa Hajjar, associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She discusses her recent article, Suleiman: The CIA's man in Cairo and Egypt's Torturer-in-Chief, which looks at Suleiman's cooperation with the United States' rendition of terrorist suspects to Egypt under the Clinton administration, to post-9/11 changes of Egyptian torture by proxy under President Bush.


SCOTT HARRIS: I'm very happy to introduce Lisa Hajjar, associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is co-editor of Jadaliyya. Lisa, maybe you could talk about that publication.

LISA HAJJAR: Sure. Yes, Jadaliyya is a new "e-zine," as the mastermind behind it, Bassam Haddad, would call it [Haddad is one of 12 Co-Editors]. We publish critical, innovative, as well as humorous things on the Middle East and on U.S. policy in the Middle East. It just started about four months ago. But since the uprising in Tunisia, and now the massively important uprising in Egypt, there's been just an explosion of publications on Jadaliyya, and its exposure in a broader way. I work mainly on torture — and so I had written an article on the day Omar Suleiman was appointed the vice president of Egypt, because of his role in torture, and it just got picked up today on Al Jazeera. So, Jadaliyya's been getting a lot of coverage.

SCOTT HARRIS: A new publication on the net born at a very propitious time, I would say.


SCOTT HARRIS: Lisa, as you said, your recent article, Suleiman, the CIA's man in Cairo, was published today at English Al Jazeera. And I wondered if you'd acquaint us with this man, who, at the very least, will be a power-broker in the transition to a new government, leading up to the scheduled elections in September, and may certainly be the ultimate power in Egypt possibly. Americans generally don't know much about the elite players in Egypt, and certainly don't know much about Mr. Suleiman. Tell us about him.

LISA HAJJAR: Well, before I come to his specific role in torture, which is a very major one, just to contextualize who Omar Suleiman is in the Egyptian context... He has been from 1993 until last Saturday (29 January 2011), when he was appointed vice-president - he was the head of Egypt's General Intelligence Service, which is similar to the CIA, but actually with much closer ties to the military. And he had, starting in the first years of the twenty first century... He'd really been very much in the shadows - he was Egypt's spy chief, and that was, in fact, his title, from 1993 until just very recently.

He also became, when the "war on terror" started, and the centrality of Egypt to the United States is "global war on terror," he was very much, perhaps, the most important person in Egypt for the United States, particularly as I would say, in his ties with the CIA. But he did, however, come out of the shadows in the early two thousands, because he started taking over a number of important dossiers in the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, including the dossier for Israel, and in fact if one does a Google image search on "Omar Suleiman," the overwhelming majority of pictures that will emerge of him are him shaking hands with various Israeli leaders. So he's definitely "Israel's favorite Egyptian," one could say that, and he has been helping the Egyptian/Israeli... The crushing of Gaza, for example is very much a somewhat shared project between Israel and Egypt. So Suleiman, for example, has been responsible for the demolition of tunnels through which both weapons and foodstuffs have gotten into a besieged Gaza.

The reason Omar Suleiman is so liked by the United States and by Israel is because of the fact that he's been ardently anti-Islamist. One could say, if he was in the United States, he'd be a Fox News type [laughs] of personality, in terms of his anti-Islamism - And very much loves to "rattle the saber" around Iran, so he's very popular among American neo-conservatives who aspire to see Iran as our next military target. And that's partially why he's been so willing to participate in the crushing of Gaza, which is currently controlled by a Hamas government.

But the other thing, coming back to Egypt, and why his appointment as vice president was such a significant gesture on the part of Hosni Mubarak when he did it, because Hosni Mubarak is obviously besieged by the two plus week demonstrations going on - two people who have long been considered rivals to succeed Mubarak were Mubarak's own son Gamal, who Hosni was grooming, but also Suleiman. And so Gamal Mubarak was very much part of the kind of multi-national corporate elite within Egypt. The Mubarak family is multi-multi-billionaires, and Gamal was very much part of that sector of the capitalist class, and was happy to allow foreign corporations to come in and essentially buy off pieces of Egypt to develop - for kickbacks. Suleiman is much more of a nationalist, so he hated Gamal both for political, and perhaps rivalry reasons, but also for the sense that that kind of multi-national corporate capitalism, which has led to some deep impoverishment in Egypt is part of what makes the country insecure. So when Mubarak appointed Suleiman as his vice president, filling a position that had literally been empty for the thirty years of Mubarak's dictatorship, it signaled that Mubarak had read the tea leaves, and his own son was out - and over this past week you see Gamal now is totally out of the picture.

So by appointing Suleiman — it was a very shrewd move on Mubarak's part, because he knew that America knows Suleiman — at least American administrators, political leaders in Washington, and the neo-cons, who are very influential in America. And appointing Suleiman would assuage Israeli anxieties, because he's also known to be someone who's ardently committed to maintaining the peace treaty with Egypt.

So that's generally the background of Suleiman, but we could talk a little bit about his torture record, if that's interesting to you.

SCOTT HARRIS: That's definitely where I wanted to go next ... Lisa, you write in your recent article about Suleiman's direct involvement in the U.S. rendition program dating back even to the Clinton administration, and then a more direct role in the extraordinary renditions that were authorized by President Bush after the 9/11 attacks.

LISA HAJJAR: Yes. In the mid 1990s, the rendition program was actually developed under Clinton, although what distinguishes "rendition" from "extraordinary rendition" is that "regular rendition" [laughs] means kidnapping people - usually by the CIA or perhaps in collusion with other security services - kidnapping people and then transporting them somewhere - to a country where they can be tried. So it's the "for trial" part - so while their capture and transport may be extra-legal, the objective was to get people into a country for trial.

In the 1990s, a number of Islamists who'd been considered "threatening" were picked up in various countries and actually brought to Egypt to stand trial. Some of them were Egyptian. People were rendered from Albania and other places, meaning that the CIA would find out that these people were in Albania, the Egyptian government was willing to try them, and so they'd be kidnapped and transported back to Egypt.

The whole process of developing the program - and the people who have written about this extensively in more detail are Jane Mayer in her book The Dark Side, Ron Suskind in his book The One Percent Doctrine, and the author of Ghost Plane [Stephen Grey]. The United States, even as the program was being devised under Clinton - they had to work in close cahoots with other governments, and Egypt was the country of choice, and Suleiman was the person. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, it was on September 16th when 2001 when Bush authorizes the CIA to engage in what now becomes "extraordinary rendition," which is kidnapping people and either disappearing them into CIA black sites, or transporting them for torture by proxy to third countries. Egypt became a very significant, but certainly not the only, site that people would be rendered into. And so Suleiman was actively involved in that. There were probably dozens of people who were kidnapped or captured by the CIA, or turned over to the CIA, rendered into Egypt for torture, sometimes rendered into American custody, sometimes ending up in Guantánamo or whatever might happen. The reason we used this extraordinary rendition is because CIA agents were unwilling to engage in the kind of brutal interrogation tactics that they feared might land them in legal hot water in the United States, and so essentially, while there's nothing "un-brutal" about water-boarding, they knew that countries like Egypt, with a long record of torture, or Morocco, or Jordan might be able to do the United States' dirty-work. And some of the people who were considered very significant were tortured for the Americans by the Egyptians.

SCOTT HARRIS: Lisa, thank you for that. What's amazing about your article is that you talk about newly-appointed Egyptian vice president Suleiman's direct involvement in torture - participation in torturing prisoners. Tell us about that.

LISA HAJJAR: Well, the two cases I highlight in the article - one of them is someone named Mamdouh Habib. Habib ultimately was an Egyptian-born Australian citizen - in retrospect, entirely innocent, I mean entirely sort of wrong guy picked up, etc. Habib was arrested in Pakistan, tortured at the Americans' behest by the Pakistanis, ultimately because he was Egyptian-born - was sent off to Cairo - the United States assumed, as was the general presumption, which turned out in many cases to be false, anybody in Afghanistan or Pakistan who wasn't Afghani or Pakistani must be a terrorist. And so here you have this Australian, and that was the immediate presumption, he was there and he was being beaten and electrocuted, and hung by his wrists and so on. At one point the person who was tormenting him slapped him so hard that his blindfold dislodged, and he could see who it was - and it was Suleiman himself! Suleiman was personally torturing Habib. Habib had nothing to confess; he was entirely innocent. But Suleiman was frustrated that he wasn't confessing to some involvement with torture or giving intelligence, so he ordered a guard there in the interrogation location to kill another prisoner - to force, to break Habib. So the guard then gave a brutal karate kick and actually killed the Turkestani prisoner who was chained right beside Habib.

So that was in some ways a very gruesome thing. Perhaps, though, the absolutely most globally significant act of torture, if we could say there was one single episode of torture that has had unparalleled global ramifications, it was the torture in Egypt of Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, who was a Libyan who was probably affiliated with the Taliban, picked up by the Pakistanis in 2001 and sent off to Egypt. When the United States was trying to build support for going to war in Iraq - this was the time when the Bush administration was trying to make the case that the regime of Saddam Hussein had "weapons of mass destruction," but also to try to persuade the American constituency and allies that also wanted that extra Saddam / Al Qaeda connection. And so during the period in the fall and winter of 2002-2003, before the invasion, both the CIA and the military were under intense pressure to produce information (i.e. confessions) that would be proof of this suspected Al Qaeda Saddam Hussein connection. And it was in fact under torture in Egypt, under Suleiman's authority, that Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi "confessed" to the "fact" that two Al Qaeda operatives had gone into Iraq to be trained in the use of chemical and biological weapons. And that was one of the two pieces of "evidence" that former Secretary of State Colin Powell presented to the United Nations to make the case for war - the proof that there was in fact a Saddam connection to 9/11.

So the war begins, and after that, Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi basically retracts what he had said, because in fact he had only said it under torture. And so one can say that in no small part, the Iraq war - the thousands of American lives, the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, the trillions of dollars that have been spent, were built on a tortured lie that was actually pursued by the United States with the direct collusion of Egypt - and specifically with Omar Suleiman.

SCOTT HARRIS: Thank you for that. We're speaking with Lisa Hajjar, associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. And we're talking about her article, just published today at English Al Jazeera, Suleiman, the CIA's man in Cairo, discussing the very sordid history of Egypt's newly-appointed vice president under pressure from the uprising in the streets. This is one of the moves made by Mubarak's government.

Lisa, tell us a bit about how Suleiman is perceived on the street in Egypt. I would imagine that his relationship with the United States and his close association with Mubarak would not put him in good stead with the diverse coalition of groups that are protesting or advocating - or demanding the ouster of Mubarak and his top echelon.

LISA HAJJAR: Well, Suleiman's role, in the sense that he was the head of the General Intelligence Service, didn't put him in the direct role of torturing masses of Egyptians - a role fulfilled by the police and the internal security services. In other words, Suleiman's torture was largely ... of either Egyptians who were no longer living in Egypt - whoever was desired to be tortured for the suspicion of transnational ties to terror.

So many Egyptians didn't know a lot about him, and he wasn't as despised, at least for that role, as many [other figures, like] the head of the internal affairs ministry and the police [who] are sort of universally despised by masses of Egyptians. So Suleiman didn't have that kind of a role. However, [he was] seen as kind of the primary enforcer of the peace treaty with Israel, which has never been popular in Egypt, but which became downright unpopular and destabilizing at times when Israel has really turned its full military force on Palestinians, as [it] did during "Operation Cast Lead." So in some ways, the more sort of repressed Palestinians, particularly in Gaza are - that sort of shines a dark light on Suleiman. However, once he comes into the public limelight, since he was appointed vice president — his popularity has plummeted, because it's only in the last couple of weeks that many Egyptians are starting to learn something about him - the fact that the protestors, for example, really feel that ... they don't want to stop demonstrating - Tahrir Square really is their bargaining chip until Mubarak either leaves or commits to an extremely short timeline to revise the constitution. But Suleiman gave an interview to the Egyptian people, and actually to the international audience as well, about six or seven days ago, and it was incredibly insulting and ... the more Egyptians know Suleiman, the less Egyptians like Suleiman. And he continues to suggest that these pro-democracy demonstrations are exclusively the work of foreign saboteurs, etc., etc., and he's also been very infantilizing, referring to the protesters as "children who need to go home," and asking their parents to call them home, when if one looks at the footage of what's going on in Tahrir, one sees people who are in their fifties, sixties and seventies, who presumably don't have any parents to "call them home."

[Actually, the matter of some of the people in Tahrir Square being parents themselves was brought to the attention of Gen. Suleiman during the interview conducted by Christiane Amanpour of ABC News, which was broadcast on 4 February 2011. She said But Mr. Suleiman, there are young people and their parents in that square. And they —, to which he replied We will call their grandfathers!, presumably expecting them to appeal to members of both of the younger generations to "come home." --ed]

So he's a very smug operative - as some people are now calling him - he's really "Mubarak's Mubarak." He may perhaps play a role in... unlike Gamal (and I think people are just delighted that Gamal is out of the picture) Suleiman may have some kind of nationalist credentials, but he's certainly not loved, and I think the more he stays around, the more "dis-loved" he's going to be.

SCOTT HARRIS: The fact that certain sectors of the protest movement in Egypt accepted an invitation to meet with Suleiman to at least begin some talks, or some negotiations, does that signal that he's got some credibility with the folks in the streets who are demanding Mubarak's resignation?

LISA HAJJAR: Well, if people want Mubarak to leave... Suleiman has been, in a sort of authoritarian move, "installed in slot number two," and if people's primary goal is to "get rid of guy in slot number one," there's no way out of the stalemate without negotiating with Suleiman. [But] the fact that some people have met with him has created a lot of dissention within the ranks of the protesters. Some people have criticized the Muslim Brothers for going to meet with Suleiman, when Suleiman had made very clear that, as far as he's concerned, Mubarak is here, nothing significant is going to change, Egypt will remain a one party state... He's basically staking out a line - he's being the Mubarak who's not Mubarak. But he is in some ways the "only game in town," if the game is you have to play with the government, and if people refuse to play with Mubarak, "he's it," so perhaps in some ways your listeners can understand the stakes in hanging on to Tahrir, the way people have over the last few weeks - now building shelters, like tents and things - because Tahrir is really the main bargaining chip that people have left, so that Suleiman and the corporate class won't just negotiate away the real earnest democracy demands of the protesters. So Tahrir really is their most significant bargaining chip with Suleiman and with the international community.

SCOTT HARRIS: I think it's predictable, but sad, that, given Suleiman's association with U.S. torture and these renditions through Bill Clinton right through the Bush administration - it's going to be difficult for the United States, the Obama administration, to call him out on his past association with human rights violations, if he does turn out to be someone who retains some kind of power in Egypt after this transition.

LISA HAJJAR: Indeed. "What a tangled web we weave" - when we decide to look forward, not backwards! The Obama administration, by committing to unaccountability for gross violations of international law under the Bush administration, it becomes complicit, not only in American torture past, but also in the torture done on our behalf in other countries, and so perhaps it just kind of highlights perhaps the worst aspects of the hypocritical trends in U.S. foreign policy.

SCOTT HARRIS: Well, Lisa, thanks so much for being her tonight on some short notice, and [I] certainly urge our listeners to visit the Al Jazeera web site, Suleiman: The CIA's man in Cairo and Egypt's Torturer-in-Chief, published in Jadaliyya, a relatively new [online] publication that you co-edit.

LISA HAJJAR: Yeah, and Jadaliyya is full of fascinating articles on what's happening now, so I definitely encourage people to go roam around Jadaliyya.

SCOTT HARRIS: Thanks, Lisa, and we'll hope to call on you again sometime soon.

LISA HAJJAR: Thank you, Scott. Bye bye.

SCOTT HARRIS: That, again, was Lisa Hajjar, associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. And a big thank you to Gary Trujillo for helping me connect with Lisa this afternoon, after this article was published. Again, the article is Suleiman: The CIA's Man in Cairo.

1 comment for "Egypt's New Vice President is Washington's Proxy Torturer [Counterpoint Interview]"


The Egyptian people, above all, are hip to this and will not accept Suleiman the non magnificent as their leader; his crimes are well known by the world, which is watching.

Edie wrote on February 11, 2011 at 09:41 AM

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