Egypt's ex-spy chief honored in military funeral

July 21, 2012 - 3:42 PM
APTOPIX Mideast Egypt

A horse drawn caisson carries the remains of Egypt's former spy chief Omar Suleiman during his funeral in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, July 21, 2012. The 76-year-old Suleiman died Thursday in a U.S. hospital. The shadowy statesman was considered Mubarak's most trusted man, handing the regime's most sensitive issues like relations with the U.S. and Israel and the fierce battle against Islamists. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's top generals led hundreds of mourners Saturday at a funeral honoring former spy chief Omar Suleiman, who for decades served as a key pillar of ousted President Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian regime.

Long a shadowy figure in Egypt, Suleiman continued to play a divisive role in the country even after his death Thursday at a hospital in the U.S. at the age of 76. The country's armed forces opted to honor him with a military funeral despite fierce condemnation from activists and Islamists for whom Suleiman, a former general, was a figure stained by his role in the suppression of opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood.

On Saturday, an honor guard carried aloft the former spy chief's coffin, draped in Egypt's red, white and black flag, before placing him to rest at a military cemetery in Cairo.

Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who heads Egypt's powerful military council, led the armed forces' delegation at the ceremony. President Mohammed Morsi, who is from the Brotherhood and was sworn as Egypt's new leader late last month, sent a representative from his office.

Also in attendance was a delegation from the Palestinian Fatah movement, led by Azzam al-Ahmed, who is Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' point man in talks with the rival Hamas. Suleiman's intelligence agency was a key broker in negotiations between the two factions.

Suleiman died Thursday at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, where he had been treated since Monday. The clinic said in a statement that Suleiman died from "complications from amyloidosis, a disease affecting the heart, kidneys and other organs."

That, however, failed to prevent conspiracy theories from quickly swirling in Cairo.

The front-page of Egypt's independent Dostor daily ran the headline "Omar Suleiman was killed," while one mourner at Saturday's funeral carried a poster with the words: "Who killed Omar Suleiman?"

The rumors surrounding his death are a reflection of the mystery that surrounded the man known in Egypt as "the black box" while he was still alive.

Tall, thin and often shown in dark sunglasses, Suleiman was Egypt's point man in cooperation with the United States in the post 9/11 rendition program in which terror suspects snatched by the Americans were shipped to Egypt and other countries for interrogation, sometimes involving torture.

He was considered ousted President Hosni Mubarak's closest lieutenant, a key pillar of his authoritarian regime and holder of many secrets. He handled the regime's most sensitive issues like relations with the U.S. and Israel, and the fierce battle against Islamists.

He was appointed Mubarak's vice president during last year's uprising in an attempt to quell the protests demanding the downfall of the regime. In the end, it was Suleiman who appeared on state TV on Feb. 11, 2011 to announce Mubarak's resignation and the military's seizure of power.

Suleiman largely vanished from sight after that, but re-emerged in April in a surprise and short-lived attempt to join the race for president. He said he was running to prevent the Brotherhood from coming to power, warning that it would turn Egypt into a religious state.

He was disqualified on technical grounds along with two Islamist candidates, including the Brotherhood's initial contender.

Skeptics believe Suleiman's last minute entry and quick exit from the race was meant to soften public opinion about the Islamists' disqualification.

Suleiman also testified in the trial of Mubarak, who was later sentenced to life in prison for failing to stop the killing of protesters during the uprising. In his testimony, Suleiman denied Mubarak issued orders to shoot at protesters but said the president did learn about the killings when he ordered the formation of an investigative committee. Mubarak supporters blame that testimony for bringing the conviction.

But it was his years as Mubarak's spy chief that earned him the ire of liberal activists and Islamists alike.

A statement released Saturday by the ultraconservative Gamaa Islamiya criticized honoring Suleiman with a military funeral.

Many of the group's members spent more than a decade in prison for their opposition to Mubarak. The group fought a low intensity insurgency against his regime in the 1980s and most of the 1990s, but later renounced violence.

"Omar Suleiman was a pillar of the old regime and dedicated his life to its service and its crimes, including various forms of torture," the group said, adding that Suleiman should have been buried in "quiet away from displays of honor."