May 31, 2012
As the presidential choice for Egyptian voters is narrowed down to an uncertain Islamist future under Muslim Brotherhood candidate Dr. Muhammad al-Mursi or a return to quasi-military rule under Air Marshal Ahmed Shafiq, former Egyptian intelligence chief Major General Umar Sulayman has warned of a potential confrontation between the two political trends that could lead to civil war. General Sulayman, whose own candidacy for the presidential post was nullified by an act of parliament earlier this year, made the remarks in a recent two-part interview with a pan-Arab daily (al-Hayat, May 22).
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As Egypt’s intelligence chief, Sulayman earned an unwelcome reputation for his broad and consistent application of torture as an instrument of state, supervision of a domestic intelligence network that permeated Egyptian society and as Mubarak’s point-man on Egyptian-Israeli relations. None of these roles endeared him to Egyptian voters and his claims that he was running for president only in response to wide popular appeals appeared as contrived as the small demonstration of sign-waving supporters that appeared on cue to back the announcement of his candidacy (see al-Akhbar [Cairo], April 9). Nonetheless, by means both fair and foul, Sulayman has over several decades compiled a detailed knowledge of Egypt’s politics and political leaders that is frequently described as encyclopedic.
General Sulayman hands-on leadership of an often brutal campaign to quell the growing influence of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has naturally placed him at odds with the movement, which successfully manipulated a largely secular revolution to become the dominant party in Egypt’s new parliament. Sulayman claims his own abortive run at the presidency was accompanied by repeated death threats from Islamist militants and the law that quickly disqualified ten candidates fromrunning for president was so clearly directed at the ex-intelligence chief that it was nicknamed “the Umar Sulayman law” (al-Akhbar, April 9; al-Hayat, May 22; Ahram Online [Cairo], April 14).
In this context, it is unsurprising that Sulayman warns that the Islamists do not possess the trained personnel capable of administering state institutions and that an Islamist victory would roll back women’s rights, make decisions based on religious considerations rather than the needs of society, disrupt relations with the West and open up Egypt to a return of Islamist militant groups such as al-Qaeda, Islamic Jihad and Takfir wa’l-Hijrah. The general further suggests that good relations with the United States are essential for the stability of Egypt, and if these relations are allowed to deteriorate to score political points for the Muslim Brotherhood, “We will become worse than Pakistan and Afghanistan, and we will be considered as a country that exports terrorism… Thus Egypt will lose its role, its army – whose U.S. weapons constitute 70% of its arms – will lose, and its economy will be hit.” Sulayman suggests that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has been deceived by the Brotherhood’s conciliatory tone, made possible by the strict discipline enforced within the movement. According to the former intelligence chief, SCAF’s biggest mistake has been to allow the Muslim Brothers to assume important roles in the all-important constitution committee that will determine the political and social future of the Arab world’s largest nation.
When asked directly by al-Hayat if a military coup was possible to prevent the establishment of an Islamist government in Egypt, Sulayman replied: “It is possible, quite possible. However, the Muslim Brotherhood Group is not foolish, and hence it is preparing itself militarily, and within two or three years it will have a revolutionary guard to fight the army, and Egypt will face a civil war, like Iraq.”
Despite his description of the dangers of a president drawn from the Muslim Brotherhood, Sulayman has elsewhere expressed his rejection of any attempts to diminish the near-dictatorial powers of the Egyptian presidency: “The head of the state must enjoy real powers. And I think that the country needs a powerful president who restores stability and protects the country’s security. It does not need the sort of fighting and power sharing that leads to further anarchy” (al-Akhbar, April 9).
This article first appeared in the May 31, 2012 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor