WASHINGTON — Three years ago, Egyptian officials assured U.S. diplomats that they were doing their best to strangle supplies to the Gaza Strip after Hamas militants seized control of the territory, but they couldn't be seen as helping the Israeli blockade.
Gaza's 1.5 million Palestinians should "go hungry," but not 'starve,'" Egypt's then-spy chief, Omar Suleiman, was quoted as saying by then-U.S. ambassador Francis Ricciardone, according to a classified cable recently released by WikiLeaks.
Suleiman, catapulted Jan. 29 out of the shadowy world of espionage onto the world stage as Egypt's new vice president, now faces hundreds of thousands of Egyptians demanding the ouster of the entire regime, starting with President Hosni Mubarak.
A close collaborator of the CIA and Israel for years, Suleiman bristles at calls for rapid reform and a process to replace Mubarak by an Obama administration worried about the stability of the Arab world's most populous nation.
His words as reported in U.S. diplomatic cables, and his actions since Mubarak named him vice president, reinforce his image as a wily gamesman, fiercely loyal to Mubarak and the former generals at the core of the regime, who's determined to resolve the crisis on his terms.
"He (Suleiman) has operated over a long time in the interest of the state and the regime, and I don't see him as a force for liberalization," said Jeffrey White, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "At the end of the day, he might find it necessary to sacrifice Mubarak in the interest of the state and the military. But I don't think he's doing that right now."
Whether the 75-year-old retired army general can outmaneuver the opposition, however, grew more uncertain as the protests entered their third week with labor unrest and violence reportedly spreading.
"General Suleiman is as smart as anybody about what's going on in this region," said a Cairo-based diplomat who couldn't be quoted by name. "But he's in new water. He's dealing now with a political process for which there is no precedent in his own country."
Born in the impoverished Upper Egypt governate of Qena in 1936, Suleiman entered the prestigious Military Academy in 1954. He served as an army officer during the 1967 and 1973 wars with Israel, rising to become a general and deputy chief of military intelligence in 1986.
The head of the Egyptian General Intelligence Service since 1993, Suleiman has served as Mubarak's top diplomat troubleshooter, a key actor in the now-moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and an ally in U.S.-led efforts to contain violent Islamic radicalism and Iran's regional ambitions.
Tagged in U.S. cables as Mubarak's "consigliere" — the rank of an adviser to a mafia don — Suleiman is portrayed as a fierce opponent of Islamic fundamentalism, sharing with his boss and others a determination to harshly suppress any threat.
Suleiman "himself adamantly denies any personal ambitions, but his interest and dedication to national service is obvious," Ricccardone wrote in a May 14, 2007, cable. "His loyalty to Mubarak seems rock-solid."
The same cable, however, quotes an "alleged friend" of Suleiman as saying that the intelligence czar was "deeply personally hurt" because Mubarak had reneged on a promise to name him vice president several years earlier.
Fluent in English, Suleiman appeared eager to share Egypt's policies on regional issues with the U.S. officials and lawmakers who regularly sought audiences with him.
Meeting Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on April 30, 2009, Suleiman warned that Islamic radicalism in Gaza "posed a particularly serious threat to Egyptian national security."
He also told Mullen that Egypt had sent a "message to Iran that if they interfere in Egypt, Egypt would interfere in Iran," and that "if you want Egypt to cooperate with you on Iran, we will."
In a Jan. 2, 2008, meeting with lawmakers led by then-Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, Suleiman showed his significant role in Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, advising that "the timing is right" for progress despite growing food, medicine and fuel shortages in besieged Gaza, and Hamas rocket attacks on Israel.
Suleiman is closely identified with Mubarak — some critics deride him as "Mubarak II" and are demanding his ouster as well — and the excesses the Egyptian strongman has used to repress his foes.
A May 19, 2009, cable from current U.S. Ambassador Margaret Scobey hinted darkly at Suleiman's methods, saying that he and former Interior Minister Habib al Adly "keep the domestic beasts at bay and Mubarak is not one to lose sleep over their tactics."
Suleiman has been identified as Egypt's liaison to the CIA's top-secret program of abducting suspected al Qaida terrorists and subjecting them to interrogation methods that many experts deem torture.
One detainee, Ibn Sheikh al Libi, who was turned over to Suleiman's agency and beaten, provided false information on al Qaida's links with Iraq that the Bush administration used in justifying its 2003 invasion of Iraq, according to a 2006 Senate Intelligence Committee report.
Mamdouh Habib, an Egyptian-born Australian citizen who was detained for years but never charged with being an al Qaida member, alleged in his memoir that he was tortured by Suleiman after being turned over by the CIA.
Since Mubarak elevated him, Suleiman has displayed some of the guile and skills that he developed as an intelligence operative, striving to manipulate public opinion in the regime's favor while exploiting the opposition's lack of a unified leadership.
He has sought the support of turmoil-weary Egyptians by saying the regime accepts protesters' demands for democratic reforms — but he hasn't specified which ones — while warning of economic devastation if the demonstrations persist.
He has also contended that the opposition movement centered on Cairo's Tahrir Square is being directed "from abroad."
At the same time, experts said, Suleiman has worked to sow suspicion and tensions within the loose amalgam of divergent opposition groups.
On Sunday, he released a statement over state television declaring that a "consensus" on a path to reform was reached in talks he held with 50 prominent Egyptians and opposition figures.
People involved in the session — who had no access to state-run media — immediately denied such an agreement.
The same day, Suleiman told ABC News that the Muslim Brotherhood, the biggest and best organized opposition group, "wanted to open a dialogue with me without Mr. ElBaradei."
Some experts saw his comment as a bid to foment tensions between the Brotherhood and Mohamed ElBaradei, the former U.N. International Atomic Energy chief, who has been designated as an opposition spokesman.
"I think that's exactly his game here," White said.
(Shashank Bengali contributed to this article from Cairo.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY