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Egypt’s Suleiman Gains Clout While Shunning Talk of Presidency

Egypt’s Suleiman Gains Clout
Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman, seen in 2009. Photographer: Tara Todras-Whitehill-Pool/Getty Images

Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman, the man leading talks to create a new government, is amassing power even as he denies ambitions to succeed Hosni Mubarak as president.

Suleiman, the intelligence chief appointed vice president by Mubarak on Jan. 29, already has begun shaping the next regime during the talks with opposition groups behind the mass demonstrations demanding Mubarak’s immediate ouster.

Last week, Suleiman said that Mubarak’s son, Gamal, won’t run for president. He invited the Muslim Brotherhood into negotiations, the first time a government official has done so since the state banned the group in 1954.

Suleiman’s tightening grip coincides with increased stability in Egypt just days after the country appeared on the brink of anarchy. Banks have opened and the government has completed most of a record treasury bill sale.

Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris on Feb. 5 openly praised the vice president as a “man of honor” who would keep Egypt free of radical Islam.

“Clearly, he is the man now at the helm,” Maha Azzam, analyst at Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Program, said in a telephone interview from London. “He obviously has the OK of the upper echelons of the military to be there for now. He would want to hold on to that and obviously there would be those, who were part of the regime and have supported it, who would like him to run and stay on.”

Patriot and Strong Leader

Suleiman, 74, is presenting himself as a patriot and strong leader after violence that saw more than 300 killed. In a Feb. 4 interview with state television, the former army general dismissed U.S. President Barack Obama’s call for an immediate transition of power as interference in domestic affairs, a stance that resonates with Egyptians who resent U.S. influence in the Middle East.

Asked whether he would run for president, Suleiman said on ABC News’ “This Week with Christiane Amanpour” that he would not.

``I have no urges for to be president of this country,'' he said. ``When the president asked me to be vice president, I accepted directly just to help the president in this critical time.”

Suleiman may become acting president if Mubarak hands power over to him. Der Spiegel, the German news magazine, citing sources it did not identify, reported yesterday that a luxury clinic near Baden-Baden was preparing to receive the Egyptian president for treatment.

German Report

Suleiman “has the respect of the people,” said Sawiris, chairman of Orascom Telecom Holding SAE, the Middle East’s biggest mobile phone operator by users. Sawiris, who met with Suleiman on Feb. 5, said Egyptians need to “prevent a kidnapping of the revolution by a fundamentalist movement like an Iranian style of government.”

Suleiman’s ascent comes as the opposition delays putting forward alternatives to Mubarak, who said Feb. 1 he won’t run in September’s presidential election. Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the United Nations nuclear agency, only says he “won’t let the Egyptian people down” if asked to stand. Nor has Amre Moussa, the secretary-general of the Arab League, stated his intentions. The former foreign minister is being pushed by at least two groups on Facebook, a platform for opposition activists.

‘An Alternative’

Suleiman “is offering himself as an alternative,” said Moustafa El-Husseini, author of “Egypt on the Brink of the Unknown. ‘‘This is the last card Mubarak has, that the military establishment says that there is chaos and then bring Omar Suleiman in to preserve its grip on power.’’

The four presidents who have ruled Egypt since the 1952 coup that overthrew the monarchy were from the military. The prospect of stability appeared to calm markets.

The cost of insuring Egyptian sovereign debt fell 27 basis points, or 0.27 percentage point, to 339, the lowest since Jan. 25, according to CMA prices in London. The yield on Egypt’s 5.75 percent bond maturing in April 2020 fell 39 basis points to 6.21 percent as of 6:27 pm in Cairo, the lowest level since Jan. 26, according to Bloomberg composite prices.

Suleiman is tainted in the eyes of some Egyptians by a career that has moved in lockstep with Mubarak’s regime. He has run the country’s intelligence service since 1993, and in 1995 the two men survived an assassination attempt by Islamist radicals during an African summit in Addis Ababa.

Low Profile

On the morning after Suleiman’s appointment as vice president, signs appeared in Tahrir Square that read: ‘‘Mubarak and Suleiman: Get Out.”

While Suleiman has had a low public profile in his own country until last week, he’s been the main contact person for some of Egypt’s key allies and neighbors for years. He helped negotiate the end of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza in January 2009 and unsuccessfully sought the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier seized by Hamas in 2006.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Feb. 5 endorsed Suleiman’s leadership of the transition as a way to ease Mubarak out of office without creating a vacuum that might “derail the process.” Suleiman on Feb. 6 promised to produce within one month a list of reforms needed to hold free elections.

“It’s important to support the transition process announced by the Egyptian government headed by Vice President Suleiman,” Clinton said in Munich on Feb. 5.

For some Egyptians spooked by a week of violence, Suleiman has been a steadying force.

“If there were election tomorrow, I would vote for him,” Khaled el-Manyalawy, 45, a dentist, said by telephone. “He is a veteran in politics. He has the decisiveness of the military and he is not corrupt.”

-- With assistance from Maram Mazen in Cairo and Caroline Alexander in London. Editors: Digby Lidstone, Steven Komarow

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