‘Umar Sulayman, the director of Egyptian military intelligence from 1993 until his appointment as vice president in late January 2011, has had a close relationship with the United States for decades. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly favored him to lead an “orderly, peaceful transition” away from ex-President Husni Mubarak. With Mubarak’s resignation, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces eclipsed Sulayman as the de facto ruler of Egypt, and he has disappeared from public view. But his lack of visibility is no guarantee that he has lost his influence. According to the Jerusalem Post, relaying an unconfirmed report in the Lebanese newspaper al-Diyar, Sulayman accompanied the Council’s head, Field Marshal Husayn Tantawi, on a visit to Mubarak in Sharm al-Sheikh.

Many in the US government, and particularly the CIA, would probably like him to retain his power. According to former CIA director George Tenet’s memoirs, Sulayman is “tall and regal-looking, a very powerful man, very deliberate in his speech. He’s also tough and engaging. In a world filled with shadows, he is straight up and down.” Another former CIA director, Michael Hayden, agreed, “We have a saying at the agency when we have a very good friend: ‘We have a lot of time for him.’ We always had a lot of time for Director Sulayman.” Former US ambassador to Egypt Edward Walker described him as “very bright, very realistic…. But he was not squeamish by the way.”

What Walker meant is that Sulayman is a torturer. Under his control, military intelligence tortured far fewer Egyptians than the domestic state security forces or the local police, but only because there were fewer prisoners in its custody.

A large proportion of military intelligence prisoners were transferred to Egypt from abroad on suspicion of involvement in terrorism, in “rendition” operations arranged by the CIA. There were dozens of such cases, beginning in 1995. Sulayman negotiated the details directly with CIA officials, including providing a “diplomatic assurance” that the detainee would not be tortured. But the CIA knew very well that “Egyptian jails…are full of guys who are missing toenails and fingernails,” in the words of former counter-terrorism chief Vincent Cannistraro. Former CIA official Michael Scheuer has stated that the assurances “weren’t worth a bucket of warm spit.”

There is no doubt that Scheuer is right to be skeptical. Every single prisoner known to have been rendered to Egypt, under both the Clinton and Bush administrations, has either made detailed, credible allegations of torture or has simply vanished. Tal‘at Fu’ad Qasim, rendered in 1995, disappeared and is believed to have been executed. Five Islamists rendered from Albania to Egypt in 1998 were beaten; tortured with electrical shocks; hung by their limbs from the ceiling of their dungeons; and kept in cells covered in knee-deep water. Two of them were later hanged.

Three former detainees transferred to Egypt shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks have alleged that Sulayman was involved in their interrogation. Mamdouh Habib, an Australian citizen, wrote in his memoir that Sulayman had been present during his torture on multiple occasions; slapped his face; threatened to imprison Habib’s wife Maha; and ordered the killing of a Turkmen prisoner in front of him. Habib was also electrocuted, severely beaten, suspended from the ceiling and shackled for hours in a room with water up to his chin, forcing him to stand on tiptoe to avoid drowning. When he returned to US custody, he was “in catastrophic shape, mental and physical…. He used to bleed from his nose, mouth and ears when he was asleep,” according to British former detainees, Shafiq Rasul, Asif Iqbal and Rhuhel Ahmed. Another English former prisoner, Jamal al-Harith, told New Yorker writer Jane Mayer that Habib “seemed to be in pain. He was haggard-looking. I never saw him walk. He always had to be held up.”

Habib has obtained statements corroborating his allegations from a former Egyptian intelligence officer and from Muhammad Saad Iqbal Madni, a Pakistani citizen rendered to Egypt from Indonesia and imprisoned with Habib. According to press accounts of Madni’s statement, he alleged that Sulayman was present at times during his brutal interrogations. “I was handcuffed the whole time and was suspended from hooks on the wall. I was badly beaten, I was punched, kicked all over my body. I was tortured with electric shocks, which made me bleed from the ears and resulted in me developing a long-term hearing problem,” he stated. Madni later attempted to hang himself with a bed sheet at Guantánamo Bay, and he still suffers from psychological problems, including depression and panic attacks.

Ahmad Abu al-Ma‘ati, a Canadian citizen arrested in Syria and later transferred to Egypt, told a Canadian government inquiry of one interrogation session conducted by Sulayman, whom he thought he recognized from the news. Abu Al-Ma‘ati was not tortured during that interrogation, but was electrocuted and severely beaten in Egyptian custody. Ahmad ‘Agiza and Muhammad al-Zayri, rendered to Egypt in December 2001, and Usama Mustafa Nasr, rendered in February 2003, have also made credible allegations of torture in Egyptian custody. Whether or not Sulayman personally brutalized them, he would certainly have known that any assurances of humane treatment were false.

Journalist Ron Suskind has reported that in 2002 US intelligence had recovered a skull alleged to be that of Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s second-in-command. To confirm the skull’s provenance, the CIA asked Sulayman for a DNA sample from al-Zawahiri’s brother Muhammad, who was in Egyptian custody. Sulayman offered to send the man’s severed arm.

According to Suskind, Sulayman was also involved in the single most notorious case of rendition, that of Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi. In early 2002, after a dispute with the FBI about al-Libi’s interrogation, the CIA flew him to Cairo and turned him over to Sulayman. In Egypt, a grim fate awaited al-Libi. A September 2006 report by the Senate Intelligence Committee described al-Libi’s allegations that he was tortured by beatings and mock burial until he falsely confessed to links between Iraq and al-Qaeda. This information, while incorrect, appears to have been what his interrogators sought, and former Secretary of State Colin Powell cited it in his February 2003 speech to the UN Security Council justifying the invasion of Iraq.

Despite this bloody history, the US continued to rely on Sulayman’s “assurances” about torture. In 2005, the State Department wrote in a diplomatic cable, “Soliman’s word is the [government of Egypt’s] guarantee” regarding the treatment of detainees, adding that his assurances were trustworthy.

In 2009, al-Libi committed “suicide” in a Libyan prison, according to a regime-controlled newspaper. Many suspect that al-Libi was actually murdered by Libyan security forces. Counterterrorism analyst Evan Kohlmann has stated that, according to a classified source, “Al-Libi’s death coincided with the first visit by Egypt’s spymaster Omar Suleiman to Tripoli,” and inferred that Sulayman may have played a role.

Military intelligence primarily interrogated suspected Islamist militants, not political activists. But his short tenure as vice president demonstrated that Sulayman was equally willing to use violence against journalists and dissidents.

On February 2, the Mubarak regime organized violent attacks against peaceful demonstrators at Tahrir Square. State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley called on “all sides in Egypt to show restraint and avoid violence,” but — contradicting virtually all eyewitnesses — claimed that “we don’t know, at this point, who did it.” Hillary Clinton asked Sulayman to investigate. The next day, Sulayman blamed the violence on plots by “foreign elements,” and the regime began targeting human rights activists, journalists and protest leaders for arrest. Most of the detentions were short-term, and the foreign activists and journalists were generally not physically harmed in custody, but the hundreds of Egyptians who were rounded up were treated far worse. Human Rights Watch and Egyptian NGOs documented at least six cases of protesters who alleged that they were tortured by military police. Far more victims have not been identified.

The worst abuses occurred in prisons. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and Amnesty International have also uncovered evidence of dozens, if not hundreds, of prison inmates being massacred at Fayyoum, al-Qata and Shibin al-Kom prisons during the Egyptian revolution. On March 8, Amnesty International released video footage recorded at the Zaynhum morgue in Cairo one month previously, showing scores of prisoners’ corpses. Many bore evidence of torture. The video was filmed by Malik Tamir, brother of one of the dead prisoners, who last saw his brother alive in the custody of military officers near Dahshour military camp.

Despite evidence of a crackdown, on February 6, Clinton said, “I think it’s important to support the transition process announced by the Egyptian government, actually headed by now Vice President Omar Sulayman.” At a press briefing on February 6, she refused to answer questions about Sulayman’s potential role in the violence on the record. A few days later, he warned that he foresaw “the dark bats of the night emerging to terrorize the people” if the protests did not end. (So much for Tenet’s claim that Suleiman is “very deliberate in his speech.”)

In a genuinely democratic Egypt, after a revolution sparked by opposition to torture and impunity by security services, it is unlikely that people would trust Mubarak’s right-hand man with any power. But today Egypt is ruled by its military, which has repeatedly detained and tortured protesters, and tried civilians in military tribunals without any procedural protections. On March 9, according to the Front to Defend Egypt’s Protesters, military police detained 190 activists in Tahrir Square, and took them to an interrogation center in the Egyptian National Museum where they were severely beaten and shocked with electricity. Activists have given detailed testimony, and released graphic video and photographic evidence of the welts, cuts and bruises that they suffered. One of the detainees was 15 years old. Two female prisoners, Samira Ibrahim Muhammad and Salma al-Husayni Gouda, have told the press that in addition to the beatings and shocks, female prisoners were forced to strip naked, and unmarried women were “examined” to see if they were virgins with the threat that they would be charged with prostitution if not. No one was actually charged with prostitution, but 148 were convicted of other crimes by military tribunals without access to counsel, and given sentences ranging from one to seven years. According to Ragia ‘Umran, a lawyer for the Front, an additional 37 people have been arrested since that date, and 11 of them sent before military prosecutors.

In response to this evidence, an anonymous military spokesman told the Daily News of Egypt that the military did not detain anyone on March 9, and the videos “are for sure fake; the army cannot torture anyone, with or without orders.” The head of the military police, Gen. Hamdi Badin, has made similar denials.

The US gives Egypt approximately $1.3 billion per year in military aid, and has promised to provide additional assistance in the wake of the revolution. The New York Times has reported that the Pentagon is in daily contact with the Egyptian military’s Supreme Council. Washington has a clear incentive to exercise its influence to allow Sulayman or his allies to retain control over the military intelligence branch, to conceal information about US complicity in its torture of prisoners. This incentive is particularly strong for the head of the CIA’s counter-terrorism center, who collaborated closely with Sulayman on renditions during his years as the agency’s station chief in Cairo.

Wael Ghonim, the administrator of the We Are All Khalid Sa‘id Facebook page, has become Egyptian intelligence’s most famous prisoner. Ghonim was detained by state security on January 27, and held for 12 days, blindfolded and handcuffed the whole time, but not physically tortured. (He later told CBS that he was sometimes beaten, “but it was not systematic.”) Upon his release, he was exhausted and distraught, but seemed genuinely amazed that he was not treated worse, telling interviewer Muna al-Shazli, “It was so strange! They treated me with so much respect.” And by the standards of Egyptian security forces, they did.

Two days later, in an interview with CNN, Ghonim addressed Sulayman personally: “You are not gonna stop us. Kidnap me. Kidnap all my colleagues. Put us in jail. Kill us. Do whatever you want to do. We are getting back our country. You guys have been ruining this country for 30 years. Enough. Enough. Enough.”

The US government has pretended not to know what happens in Egyptian torture chambers for far too long. It is time for the American public to repeat Ghonim’s call: Enough. Whatever influence Washington has over Egypt’s transition should be used to persuade the military to lift the state of emergency and allow free and fair elections, not to protect ‘Umar Sulayman or any other “good friend” responsible for human rights abuses.

How to cite this article:

Katherine Hawkins "Sulayman the Malevolent," Middle East Report 258 (Spring 2011).
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