x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Are some Egyptians yearning for another strongman?

Hosni Mubarak's spy chief Omar Suleiman is the quintessential "feloul," the Arabic word Egyptians use to refer to remnants of the Mubarak regime.

Egyptian protesters hold a banner with manipulated photos showing presidential hopefuls (L-R) Amr Moussa, Ahmed Shafik, and Omar Suleiman during a protest in Cairo this month.
Egyptian protesters hold a banner with manipulated photos showing presidential hopefuls (L-R) Amr Moussa, Ahmed Shafik, and Omar Suleiman during a protest in Cairo this month.

Eleven days is all that separated the April 7 announcement by Hosni Mubarak's spy chief Omar Suleiman that he was running for president and the election commission's decision to disqualify him from the race.

Mr Suleiman's candidacy shook Egypt's already turbulent politics, but perhaps most importantly, it reminded post-Mubarak Egypt that the "old regime" was lurking and with enough resources to consider regaining power.

Mr Suleiman, who briefly served Mr Mubarak as his vice president, is the quintessential "feloul", the Arabic word Egyptians use to refer to remnants of the Mubarak regime. That he declared his intention to win the presidency would have been unthinkable a year ago when Mr Mubarak's 29-year regime was so discredited that no one thought any of its stalwarts could even consider running for office, let alone the land's highest.

But the turmoil that has roiled the country over the past 14 months has left many Egyptians frustrated and angry. Security remains tenuous, and the economy is free falling. Seemingly endless strikes, demonstrations and sit-ins disrupt traffic and services and leave many concerned that the worst is yet to come unless a powerful figure takes power.

The 75-year-old Suleiman served as the head of Egypt's General Intelligence Agency, or the Mukhabarat Al Amah, for nearly two decades before the ousted leader named him vice president as part of a last-gasp effort to retain power in the face of an 18-day popular uprising that eventually toppled him on February 11 last year.

Mr Suleiman's last task as vice president was a brief television announcement in which he told the nation that Mubarak was stepping down.

Throughout his years as a spy chief, Mr Suleiman mostly kept himself hidden from the public gaze, getting the occasional mention in the news when he visited Washington or Israel. The popular perception at the time was that Mr Suleiman was trusted by Mr Mubarak and was in turn blindly loyal to the former leader.

On the other hand, critics of the Mubarak regime charge that Mr Suleiman shared the former leader's hatred for Islamists, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, and was a firm supporter of the regime's repeated crackdowns on them.

He is also believed to have been the regime's point man in cooperation with the United States in its "war on terror".

Mr Suleiman sought during those 11 days of his candidacy in April to distance himself from the regime he served, assuring critics that he would not try to "reinvent" the old regime if he was elected.

"The clock cannot be turned back, and the revolution laid down a new reality that cannot be ignored," he said. "And no one, no matter who he is, will be able to reinvent a regime that fell, folded and was rejected and revolted against."

Mr Suleiman's emergence, though short-lived, rattled Islamists and liberals alike, but his candidacy also had many Egyptians wondering if it was really that bad to have a Mubarak-era figure for president if he could restore law and order and get the economy back on its feet.

But the Islamists, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, saw in his candidacy a serious threat to their newly found political power only months after they swept parliamentary elections. They called for street protests to "save the revolution" from the remnants of the old regime.

In reality, said their critics, all they wanted was to protect the political domination they had long aspired to.

Parliament, where Islamists led by the Brotherhood control 70 per cent of the seats, hurriedly adopted a bill on April 12 that strips top leaders of the Mubarak regime from their political rights for 10 years. However, the bill can only become law if the ruling generals ratify it. The generals referred it to the Supreme Constitutional Court which, late yesterday, refused to rule on the bill, judicial sources told Agence-France Presse. The court said it could only consider a law after it comes into effect, the sources said.

It was never clear throughout the 11 days whether Mr Suleiman had the backing of the generals. He himself denied he was their choice for president or that he had their backing, but many in Egypt believed he could not have decided to enter the race without their nod.

But if he had the generals' backing, then why did the election commission appointed by the military disqualify him? Officially, he was disqualified because he did not meet the 30,000-signature threshold needed to officially enter the race.

It is difficult to gauge Mr Suleiman's chances had he been allowed to run.

He did himself no favours, for example, when he was shown on television arriving at the election commission with a military escort.

Furthermore, he bared what appeared to be a deeply felt hatred for Islamists in a pair of newspaper interviews in which he said he had decided to join the election to stop Egypt from becoming a "religious state".

Mr Suleiman's disqualification leaves two Mubarak-era figures in the race: the former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq and Amr Moussa, who served as Mubarak's foreign minister for 10 years and as the Arab League chief until last year. But it's Mr Shafiq who led the last cabinet appointed by Mubarak that is constantly vilified for being a part of the old regime.