The Mystery of Omar Suleiman
What mysteries surround the death of Omar Suleiman, once called “Egypt’s torturer-in-chief”?
For many Egyptians, Omar Suleiman was a symbol of evil incarnate (okay, full disclosure–for me too). For twenty years he was the head of Egypt’s General Intelligence Service, aka the mukhabarat. Under him, arbitrary detention and torture became commonplace as deterrents to dissent. He was the contact man for the USA’s rendition of terrorist suspects (it’s said the US once asked for a sample of a suspect’s DNA, whereupon Suleiman jokingly offered to send them the guy’s whole arm).As Mubarak fell, Suleiman escaped not only prosecution but investigation, to re-emerge as a would-be presidential candidate. So his death in a Cleveland clinic seemed a strange anticlimax.
Western newspapers saw nothing strange in his death. Doctors spoke of a rare medical condition and regime officials told reporters he’d had heart problems for several years.
In Egypt, however, it is believed by many people that he was murdered, that a dying Suleiman was rushed to the U.S. in a last-ditch effort to save his life.
Many of the conspiratorial stories came together in a July 26th op-ed in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masryoon. The opinion piece was entitled “Who Killed Omar Suleiman?” and written by Chief Editor Gamal Sultan.
Among the questions Sultan wants answers to:
- How could Suleiman have been suffering from heart problems or some unknown illness when only three months ago he was running in the presidential elections?
- Why, before the final outcome of the runoff vote and the announcement of Muhammad Morsi’s victory did Suleiman suddenly traveled to the Emirates? Did he have a private business there? Did he go to work for the Emirati security apparatuses (which often rely on the services of security experts from outside states)? If so, why was he allowed to given that regulations prevent intelligence officials from working abroad at least for ten years after leaving his position?
- Are the reports true from (unnamed) Arabic and foreign media true that Suleiman was working as a security advisor for Bashar al-Assad’s family?
- Is it true that Suleiman was actually killed in the explosion which occurred in the Syrian intelligence building in Damascus, that claimed the lives of many prominent Syrian officials?
- Are the rumors true that Suleiman’s charred body was ruched to the United States in a desperate attempt at saving his life?
- Or was it his charred corpse that was sent to the U.S. to conceal the facts of his death?
- Why hasn’t the U.S. issued any statements about the way Suleiman entered its soil and the visa type he was carrying?
- Why, on July 25, did the American Department of State announce that Omar Suleiman’s visa will remain a state secret that cannot not be revealed?
- Why has the Prosecutor’s office in Cairo refused to open an investigation into the death of General Suleiman? And why has it refused to order the exhumation of his corpse to elucidate the real circumstances of his death?
- Who is imposing this exceptional secrecy over Omar Suleiman’s murder?
- Is it merely a coincidence that three former intelligence leaders in the region died the same week?
- Why is the security institution in Egypt refusing to answer these questions?
It is easy to dismiss this kind of conspiracy theorizing as rubbish. After all, it arises from lack of information rather than evidence, and it depends heavily on the fact that you can’t prove a negative (i.e. it’s easy to prove you have nuclear weapons by trotting them out, but it’s not easy to prove you don’t have them in the face of an enemy who can keep coming up with ever more clever ideas about how and where you might be hiding them, and after all, we’d better not take the risk, right?)
Conspiracy theorizing refers to a diverse set of communicative practices that prioritize agency and fetishize causality in making sense of everyday incoherence. Conspiracy theorizing often takes place especially within marginal groups, and those resistant to the dominant order (Jameson 1988: 355; Marcus 1999b; Parish and Parker 2001).
As a cultural practice, conspiracy theorizing produces a particular kind of knowledge that overlaps with, but also constrasts and conflicts with the “official” forms of knowledge produced by media, scholars, legal systems, NGOs and other social and political institutions. Conspiracy theorizing constructs an alternative “regime of truth” (Foucault 1980-131-132) organized by different procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation and operation of statements than those that operate in the more “official” regimes.
Generally speaking, communicative practices of conspiracy theorizing employ a paradoxical logic. As a mode of knowledge production, such practices are built around a paradox: they pursue final truth while questioning the very possibility of ever getting there, look for an ultimate authority who can speak the truth while doubting the credibility of all sources of information, and search for unmanipulated facts while suspecting their origin and our ability to receive them in any unmediated fashion (Parker 2001: 193-195).
Social media makes conspiracy theorizing easier than ever, but mainstream newspapers like Al-Masryoon have always played their part, too. And why not? As I argue in an early paper:
this problem, that the truth is out there, and is writeable, but the people who know the truth have reasons for not telling it to you accurately, is the paradox that drives the journalistic enterprise (2001: 205)
Thus the problem of objectivity in journalism is not too far from that of conspiracy theorists.
Culturally speaking, conspiracy theorizing provides a means for people to construct a particular kind of imagined community of political engagement, outlining a common political culture across a society multiply fractured along ethnic, linguistic, and other cultural dimensions.
During the Mubarak regime, there were two basic forms of conspiracy theories, one which saw the regime’s hand in everything that went wrong, and the other, encouraged and sometimes fostered by the regime, that saw “foreign hands” in every disaster.
The Al-Masryoon editorial is especially interesting because it looks to herald a new form of conspiracy theorizing, suited to the post-Mubarak Egypt. But it is still in its gestation period.
Stay tuned for more… the truth is out there! (You just won’t necessarily know it when you see it!)
Faubion, James. 1999. “Deus Absconditus: Waco, Conspiracy (Theory), Millenialism, and (the End of) the Twentieth Century.” In Paranoia Within Reason: A Casebook on Conspiracy as Explanation, edited by George E. Marcus. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 375-404.
Foucault, Michel. 1980. “Truth and Power.” In Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977. New York: Pantheon, pp. 109-133.
Jameson, Frederic. 1988. “Cognitive Mapping.” In Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, edited by Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, pp. 347-357.
Marcus, George E. and Michael G. Powell. 2003. From Conspiracy Theories in the Incipient New World Order of the 1990s to Regimes of Transparency Now. Anthropological Quarterly 76 (2): 323-334.
Marcus, George E., ed. 1999. Paranoia Within Reason: A Casebook on Conspiracy as Explanation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Parish, Jane and Martin Parker, eds. 2001. The Age of Anxiety: Conspiracy Theory and the Human Sciences. Oxford: Blackwell.
Sanders, Todd and Harry West (eds). 2003. Transparency and Conspiracy: Ethnographies of Suspicion in the New World Order. Durham: Duke University Press.