Omar Suleiman, 74, was appointed vice-president of Egypt by President Hosni Mubarak, 82, on Saturday, according to state television reports. It is the first time the president has filled the position since 1981. Mubarak was promoted to president nearly 30 years ago from the vice-president position following the assassination of his predecessor, Anwar el-Sadat. The state media is also reporting that Mubarak has named a new prime minister — Ahmed Shafik — a respected retired general, seemingly in an attempt to strengthen ties with the military.
Suleiman was previously the country’s intelligence chief since 1993, a role in which he figured prominently in Egypt’s relations with Israel and the United States, and diplomacy in general. As the country’s spy chief, Suleiman was also charged with overseeing Egypt’s political security files, and was behind the fragmentation of Islamist groups in the 1990s who led the uprising against the state.
The appointment of Suleiman is hoped to be a step toward establishing a successor while Mubarak faces the biggest threat to his power by thousands of anti-government protesters. Although it had been believed that Mubarak was grooming his son as his successor, there had been increasing political opposition to the idea of a hereditary succession.
In recent days the streets of Egypt have been rife with chaos, looters and gangs armed with knives and sticks wreaking havoc throughout the cities. It remains to be seen whether the appointment of Suleiman will do much, if anything, to calm the waters.
President Mubarak has seen his curfews and threats of a harsh crackdown ignored by tens of thousands of protesters, who, for a fifth day in a row on Saturday, has struggled to maintain the authoritarian rule he has maintained since taking office. He faced more challenges when the military he ordered deployed in order to maintain some calm on the streets did little to help stop the violence, with the army in some cases taking the side of the protesters.
The government also tried to block or restrict some of the country’s Internet service in an attempt to keep protesters from connecting through social networking sites. Experts speculate that if Mubarak loses power, the established order throughout the Middle East will be threatened. Significant anger toward the United States has also been increasingly expressed by the anti-government voices, especially on the heels of a speech by President Barack Obama on Friday in which he stated that he told Mubarak to listen to his people’s demands for a better democracy.
To date, more than 70 people have been killed in the protests and over 1,000 injured. The death toll is expected to continue rising.