A life in government service
Ahmed Eliba interviews and profiles former Intelligence General Ahmed Hossam Khairallah, who is running for the presidency
Ahmed Hossam Khairallah is one of 13 candidates in the race for the presidency, though he, like many others, believes that the map of that race has not yet been finalised. Khairallah expects significant changes to take place between now and 8 May, the official deadline for withdrawing from the contest, and candidates in the elections who do withdraw may well throw their support behind other candidates, which could significantly alter the playing field.
In Khairallah's view, the decision by the Presidential Elections Commission to disqualify 10 candidates from the presidential race was not politically motivated but was instead grounded in legal considerations. Foremost among those eliminated from the race were the Salafi candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Khairat El-Shater, and former vice president Omar Suleiman. Of the three, Suleiman was the one who showed the most respect for the ruling, Khairallah says.
He also believes that his own electoral prospects have improved since Suleiman's withdrawal. Suleiman's candidacy had narrowed the gap with the large body of opinion in the country that rejects the idea of a presidential elections candidate from a military background, and it helps in this regard that Khairallah hails from the same branch of security, the General Intelligence Service (GIS), as Suleiman. Moreover, the Islamist movements are in disarray following the disqualification of both El-Shater and Abu Ismail.
Nevertheless, the GIS has come under heavy criticism, with one Muslim Brotherhood MP charging that "it is Mubarak's intelligence service" during discussion in parliament on a bill to ban former officials from the former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and other members of the former regime from running for office.
Others have accused the GIS of being the "third mover" behind the chaos and disruption that has taken place in Egypt since last year's 25 January Revolution. Such allegations anger Khairallah, who served in the GIS for more than three decades and rose to the post of first deputy of the service before retirement. "These criticisms do not reflect the facts," he says. "The GIS works for the good of Egypt and without partiality for any particular political camp. Since the time of former president Anwar El-Sadat, we have been used to furnishing a range of assessments and reports, though many of these were not taken account of during the former regime and Mubarak stopped reading them in 2003. He had his own opinions, and he used those as the basis for his policies while president."
Khairallah dismisses charges that the GIS under Suleiman's direction was responsible for a number of foreign-policy failures, especially with respect to certain African and Palestinian issues. "These issues were passed to the GIS after being taken away from the foreign ministry. They were already failing when they were sent to us, so how can we be blamed for pre-existing problems," Khairallah asks, adding that many of the issues have been affected by changing circumstances, citing the case of Hamas, which has been affected by the current crisis in Syria.
With regard to plans to usher in Gamal Mubarak, Mubarak's son, as president, Khairallah says that there was virtually unanimous opposition to these plans within the GIS. "I told Suleiman about this opposition from 2004 onwards, when it looked as if the general inclination did not favour the hereditary succession scenario, but welcomed the succession of Suleiman. However, he dismissed what I said and turned a deaf ear to what he regarded as just so much talk."
If Khairallah were elected president, how would he handle national security matters? In answering this question, Khairallah says that he would not rely on the GIS or the army. Instead, "Egypt needs an expanded national security council, on the lines of the 40-member council that exists in the US. This should be made up of the best experts in Egypt, who would design strategies for the future. Meanwhile, the army, intelligence and other security agencies should perform their missions of defending the country and maintaining stability so that the economy can prosper," he says.
On the present electoral race, Khairallah observes that the huge influx of money funding the campaigns has led many to fear that this will be what sways the elections. However, he notes that it is not just the campaign coffers of the Islamist candidates that are being filled. "I won't mention any names. Let's just say that there are some candidates who are taking money from the East and others who are taking money from the West, and that some have received less than $10 million, while others have received more than $150 million. Gulf money dominates."
"I have not received any such contributions," Khairallah adds. "And I wouldn't take them if I was offered them, which I haven't been."
On the other hand, Khairallah is also certain that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) will not be tempted to meddle in the presidential elections. He also stressed that he has neither met with nor been contacted by anyone from the SCAF.
On the future of this body after its handing over power to a civilian authority, Khairallah is confident that it will resume its previous functions. He rejects the term "honourable exit" for the future of the SCAF, which he finds both unnecessary and insulting. "They [the members of SCAF] are not at fault. The mistakes that were made were committed by the governments, not by the SCAF. Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi will hand over power as planned, which he in any case finds a burden, even if he has talked about the need to have the constitution ready before the elections and has mentioned the slight possibility that the presidential elections may have to be postponed for six months because of the delay in drafting the constitution."
Khairallah has a campaign platform covering political, social, economic and security issues. However, he believes that the course that would be best for Egypt would be for the country to hold a comprehensive national dialogue in which all social and political forces would take part. The purpose of this would be to achieve consensus on the mechanisms to build the bridge to the future.
Several weeks ago, assistant minister of defence for economic affairs General Mahmoud Nasr said that "the military will fight to hold on to its economic interests and will never relinquish them to governmental control." The remark was greeted by a hail of criticism from economic experts, and Khairallah is also critical. "Army production is geared solely to supplying the needs of its personnel and functions," he says. "In the days of defence minister Abdel-Halim Abu Ghazala, the army entered into the production of almost anything, this experiment being met with harsh criticism because it crowded out opportunities for the civilian sector. I agree with these criticisms. As much as the army is able to achieve and as quickly as it is able to do so, the state must help develop the capacities of commercial firms and industries and work to open outlets for them abroad."
Khairallah has no fears about the capacities of the defence forces themselves, however. "Although the army has been involved in politics during the transitional phase, it has relied solely on back-up units in the streets. This did not affect its combat strength. In fact, the army's regular training schedule has been kept to throughout, and all the planned exercises have been held, which is very reassuring."
Although the security of Sinai has become a source of concern recently, Khairallah maintains that the situation is not as serious as is sometimes believed and that public alarm may stem from insufficient knowledge of the matter. "The extent of the Egyptian military presence in Sinai today is unprecedented. Before the 1967 War, there was only one division in Sinai. Today, there are four, one armoured and three mechanised. We are at peace, and this force is sufficient to maintain security in Sinai."
He takes the opportunity to point out that when discussing Egypt's relations with Israel and the 1979 peace treaty, people should bear in mind that these relations are connected with Egypt's relations with the US. "The US has a hugely important relationship with Egypt. What is important in this context is for us to maintain our national independence and not to fall into the trap of dependency. If we are able to do this, we will gain ever-greater benefits."
On the question of Gaza, Khairallah comments that "Israel wants to push this issue onto Egypt. But Israel is the occupying power, and as such it should meet its responsibilities. Egypt's responsibility is to keep the crossings with Gaza open in order to alleviate the strains of the blockade on the Palestinian people."
The recent visit by Egypt's Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa to Jerusalem sparked a barrage of criticism, but Khairallah, whose understanding of security affairs has been honed by decades of professional experience and who has visited Jerusalem three times and toured Israel several times, takes an opposite view.
"After the 1967 War, it became our practice to withdraw our delegation from any international forum if an Israeli delegation was present. The result was that we left the field clear to the Israelis to spread whatever lies occurred to them, and soon they had the international community believing whatever came out of their mouths and mistrusting whatever the Arabs said in return. After the 1973 War, we woke up to this reality and began to sit in the same conferences and voice our objections. Today, Jerusalem is being eaten away by Israel, and we need to make our presence felt on the condition that we enter the city via Jordan."
Some Egyptian Copts also recently faced criticism over a recent pilgrimage to Jerusalem on the grounds that they had broken the travel ban to Israel. Khairallah points out that this criticism could have been avoided if the pilgrims had not entered via Israeli airports, but instead had gone via Jordan, which adds no more than an hour and a half to the journey.
On religious affairs at home, Khairallah is a firm believer in the separation of religion and state. "Al-Azhar, the religious citadel of Muslims, and the Coptic Church in Egypt, should both respect the need for this separation. However, it should not be so rigid that it prevents them from stepping in to help or to offer advice on crucial issues and problems," he says.
Three officials from Egypt's General Intelligence Service have nominated themselves as candidates for the presidency: former vice president and former head of the service General Omar Suleiman; his assistant and former first deputy for information General Ahmed Hossam Khairallah, and General Mamdouh Qotb, former director-general of the intelligence service. Now that Suleiman and Qotb have been disqualified from the running, Khairallah is the only ex-Intelligence official running for the nation's highest office.
Although Khairallah retired in 2005, he has retained close relations with friends and colleagues from the service, both those remaining in it and those who have retired. The most recent among the latter is Suleiman, whom Khairallah has met twice since last year's 25 January Revolution. It appears that the presidential hopeful is keen to capture the supporters of both ex-colleagues and perhaps form a kind of coalition of supporters towards this end.
Khairallah seems to have been born for a life in government service. A scion of a family of security officials, his grandfather was a prominent member of the police service before the 1952 Revolution and one of the officers charged with escorting the former king Farouk, the last Egyptian monarch, out of the country on the yacht "Mahrousa" before bringing the royal yacht back to Egypt.
Khairallah's father worked his way up the ranks of the police until he reached the top of the service. He went on to become minister of the interior, in which capacity he acquired a reputation for his crackdowns on drug-trafficking and the notorious dens in Cairo's Bateniya district. Following this period spent as minister of the interior, he served as governor of Aswan. Khairallah was inspired by both these family role models, and he derived many of his guiding principles from them.
Khairallah began his own career in the Armed Forces, in which he served for 12 years before rising to the rank of major. Two years after the end of the 1973 War, in which Khairallah fought with distinction, he left the army and joined the General Intelligence Service (GIS), in which he eventually became first deputy, a civilian rank roughly equivalent to the military rank of lieutenant-general.
Highly knowledgeable of the intricacies of domestic, regional and international politics, Khairallah rarely offers information or answers a question without including a story from some part of the globe that he has most likely visited. He will often pause at length to talk about Israel, which he has frequently visited and whose towns and cities he is intimately acquainted with.
Egypt's relationship with Israel is a source of considerable concern for Khairallah, especially in view of the extent to which it is also governed by the country's relationship with the US. Khairallah has also visited Iran at various times, and he remains troubled by Tehran's regional policies. Turkey, by contrast, he regards highly, praising both its pragmatic outlook and behaviour.
Khairallah does not see himself as having any particular political axe to grind, especially as he is intimately familiar with the inner workings of politics. He is a font of information about the latter, describing the workings of the political maze in a calm and objective manner. At the same time, Khairallah favours a strong military, regarding this as a national imperative for Egypt, and he is an ardent defender of the GIS. He is friendly towards all the political forces in the country, even though he has reservations with regard to most. This applies in particular to the Muslim Brotherhood, which he believes has an insatiable craving for power.
As Khairallah readily tells interviewers, he was an observer of last year's revolution, not a participant in it, even though he had previously fought against attempts to install Gamal Mubarak, the son of the ousted former president Hosni Mubarak, as president through his work at the GIS. Khairallah stresses that the revolution marked a new starting point for Egypt and an opportunity to move forward and to build, rather than to dwell on the past.
Nevertheless, some, like Brigadier-General Safwat El-Zayat, have felt compelled to ask about Khairallah's revolutionary credentials. "Where was Khairallah during the revolution? Why is there no record of his positions," El-Zayat asks. "I was writing a daily chronicle of the revolution, and almost all the other presidential candidates are on record as having stated their positions on it. But not Khairallah. No one heard from him at all. Yet, being a politician means taking a stance, and such stances define a politician when the time comes to act."
Khairallah's former colleagues at the GIS are reluctant to talk to the media about him, explained by General Sameh Seif El-Yazal, as a result of the obligation on GIS staff to remain neutral in political matters. "The service has a position on the subject of the candidacy question itself," the general said. Indeed, in an official statement the GIS has made it clear that it "stands at an equal distance from all the candidates".
Khairallah sees his military background as a major strength of his candidacy, emphasising this in many recent statements. The people need a man who is "tough, disciplined and has the experience and skills to deal with the security situation, which has deteriorated since the revolution," he says.
The popularity of one of the other candidates, Omar Suleiman, before he was disqualified from standing has undoubtedly helped to shape this outlook. However, General Adel Suleiman, director of Egypt's International Future Studies Centre, believes otherwise. In Egypt, a military background could be a weak point for a future president, Suleiman said. "The era of military rule is over, not just in Egypt, but also around the world. Even the military establishment has come to accept that the president must come from outside the military." However, Suleiman also pointed out that Khairallah left the military a long time ago and that his post in the GIS was a civilian one.
El-Zayat agrees that a military background may not be a source of political strength for a presidential candidate. "Even if a prophet stepped forward to run as president, if he appeared dressed in a military uniform the Egyptian people wouldn't vote for him," El-Zayat commented.
Ahmed Doma, a member of the 6 April revolutionary movement, has similar feelings. Egypt's next president should not be a military man, a civilian from the former regime, or even someone affiliated with one of the Islamist movements, he says. "When we choose our next president, we must acknowledge that we have had a revolution. As a result, we need a president who had a relationship with the revolution, and this requirement fits at most three candidates: Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, Hamdeen Sabahi, and the young people's candidate Khaled Ali."
General Adel Suleiman echoes this view. "Enough of military rule," he says. "The time for this has passed. Now we must hand things on to the young people, to the generation that made the revolution. They are the ones who should now take charge, allowing them to use their will-power and energy for the good of the country."
"There is no reason why the president has to be from the military or from the security agencies in order for him to make decisions on security matters. If this were so, it would imply that the president had to be an expert on every issue he has to deal with, which is both illogical and impossible. US President Barack Obama has never been a military officer or advisor, for example. Before becoming president, he was an academic whose field was law. Yet, when Obama needs to address national security questions with the US Congress, he can discuss even the most sensitive and complicated issues in an informed and intelligent way because he has advisors who specialise in these matters."
"Egypt is in a phase of gradual transition after a revolution that demanded change in all areas of life, not just in military and national security matters."
Suleiman had a further criticism to level against Khairallah aside from his military background, and this had to do with the candidate's remarks on the corruption that exists in Egypt. "If they had important information on this matter, why did they remain silent for so long? Why has Khairallah decided to speak out against corruption today, using general slogans and clichés, if he had information about it earlier?"
In the final assessment, Khairallah has many strong points that support his candidacy for president. He is professional, knowledgeable and experienced. However, Egypt today may be looking for a president with other important qualifications, attested to by a record of political involvement and achievement. On this count, Khairallah's CV is blank. Because this has reduced his chances of rallying support from any of the country's major political forces, he has had to rely on those not having sufficient grassroots support in order to support his candidacy in Egypt's presidential race.