Conflict & Justice

Egypt's Ex-Vice President Omar Suleiman Dies in US Hospital from Sudden Illness

Marco Werman: When the revolution in Egypt was getting close to toppling President Hosni Mubarak, the long-time ruler tried to weather the storm by appointing a new Vice-President. That was Omar Suleiman. The appointment did not appease the protestors but it did shine a spotlight on one of Mubarak's closest advisors. Well, today Omar Suleiman died. He reportedly suffered a heart attack while undergoing tests at a hospital in Cleveland. He was 76. The World's Matthew Bell is in Cairo where Suleiman was once a powerful figure.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

Matthew Bell: Omar Suleiman was first and foremost, Marco, a master spy. He was the head of military intelligence for many years, then, he was the head of general intelligence. He was known as being fiercely anti-Islamist. Many of them suffered under Omar Suleiman's general intelligence services. So, many Egyptians will look at the news of Suleiman's death and be happy.

Werman: Well, what do most of the people on the ground say about Suleiman? I mean, he wasn't just a shadowy spy. Some say he was a killer, as you say — a torturer.

Bell: Right, and his legacy is complicated. There is definitely a segment of Egyptian society that will say he was a patriot. However, there is a large segment of Egyptian society that will see him as just that. I talked to an Egypt expert, Omar Ashour, from the University of Exeter about this. He told me that many Egyptians will see Suleiman as a killer.

Omar Ashour: For many, he was a mass murderer. Many of the Egyptian citizens were killed and tortured under his directions.

Werman: What was Omar Suleiman's attitude toward Mubarak's rule as that rule was coming to a quick end last year?

Bell: You remember Marco that it was Omar Suleiman who was the one that came on television on February 11 last year and actually announced that Hosni Mubarak was stepping down. A couple of weeks before that, Suleiman became Egypt's first Vice-President in 30 years in what was seen as an attempt to sort of appease the protests that were going on here. But, Omar Suleiman I am sure died with a lot of secrets. The legend is that he had this quote…unquote "black box"; that he had a lot of dirt on a lot of people — some of them very powerful. It's not clear if we'll ever know what was in that black box.

Werman: For someone who has been described by some in Egypt as a killer, it's interesting that some people there also believe he could have been President of Egypt, if he had lived.

Bell: That's right Marco. In April, he launched a campaign to run for President and he was seen as bringing a message of law and order. I think someone like Omar Suleiman would definitely get certain Egyptians" attention when he was running for President. It turns out he tried to get enough signatures to get on the ballot but fell just short of it, so he was disqualified.

Werman: As controversial as Omar Suleiman was, do you think the unanswered questions are a major inconvenience for Egypt right now at this moment in its history?

Bell: You know, I think Omar Suleiman historically, incredibly important. Since the presidential election, however, I'm not sure he was nearly so relevant and I think a lot of the political intrigue here has boiled down to a competition between the military on the one hand and then the Muslim Brotherhood on the other hand, but Omar Suleiman — the man, was gone and has been gone for a long time. I'm not sure how relevant he was when he died.

Werman: The World's Matthew Bell speaking with us from Cairo about the death of Egypt's former Vice-President, Omar Suleiman. Matthew, thanks so much.

Bell: Glad to do it Marco.