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Middle East: Arab World Faces Succession Problems

Prague, 11 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- King Hussein's last-minute naming of a successor before his death this week marks a widespread problem in the Arab world where a generation of leaders is aging without providing for who will follow them.

King Hussein, who died at age 63, was young by comparison with many other leaders in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia's King Fahd is in his mid-seventies. Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak is 70, as is Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. And Syria's President Hafez al-Assad is 68.

Of these rulers, only two named their successors and even then the process was less than certain. King Hussein had named his brother as his successor for almost 35 years, but two weeks before his death chose his own son to follow him. Saudi Arabia's ailing King Fahd has delegated much of his power to his brother as crown prince, but his brother is 76, leaving the future still in doubt.

Many of the Arab world's presidents have refrained from naming a successor and deliberately left it unclear how such a person even would be chosen. Their governments have been marked by strong one-man rule, raising the possibility that the president's own death will set off a power struggle to take his place.

Bill Quant, a Mideast expert at the Brookings Institute in Washington, says that with so many aging and absolutist rulers, the Arab world may now be approaching a period of uncertainty:

"We are at one of those moments in Middle Eastern history when there are all, at the same time, quite a number of governments where it is difficult to know who the next ruler is going to be ... this could be a period of uncertainty, I am not sure it will be a period of great upheaval and revolution and turmoil ... but a lot depends on developments that are really outside the control of many of these regimes." Quant says that many Arab leaders have deliberately left it vague who will follow them out of fear of creating a strong rival. He says that many leaders who came to power in the wake of earlier coups, such as in Syria and Iraq, command only a precarious sense of legitimacy. They fear that rivals will only try to gain more public support than they have and try to push them aside.

The analyst says that in the Middle East it has been rare for strong leaders to name strong successors, even under well-established constitutional systems. Egypt's President Mubarak is an example. He was Anwar Sadat's vice president and became president in 1981 after Sadat's assassination. But he so far has refrained from naming a vice president of his own.

Several authoritarian leaders who head ruling parties are grooming their sons to follow them, believing they can only trust rivals from their own families. Iraq's Saddam Hussein, who is 61, continues to put more power into the hands of his sons, Uday and Qusay. Syria's Assad is reported to be grooming his surviving son, Bashar, after his eldest son Basil died in a car crash in 1994.

Analysts say that the fear of being deposed leads many Arab presidents who nominally head republics to create the same kind of dynastic succession practiced by Arab monarchs. The practice bodes ill for democracy, and reduces the parliamentary system many of the leaders profess to a purely symbolic function.

But there are exceptions to the rule. Quant says that Algeria now appears ready to elect a new leader in hopes of ending years of civil unrest over the legitimacy of its current government. Bill Quant says:

"Algeria is going through a transition right now. It's president has voluntarily decided to step down, at least as far as we know, and it looks as if the next president will be chosen in a pluralistic election ... We don't know whether the election will be a fair one or not but it is generating a lot of discussion and debate and this is an example of fairly recent institutions possibly beginning to take hold and being tested in a succession election which will presumably produce a new leader."

Algeria's President Liamine Zeroual has called for early elections in April. The country has been wracked by violence since a military-backed regime in 1992 cancelled the second round of elections that the now-outlawed Islamic Salvation Front had been poised to win.

Quant says that the Arab world's difficulties with succession are not unique and are shared by many states which still have weak democratic traditions.

But he warns that the desire of non-democratic leaders to stay in power as long as possible without thinking of the future often means their country pays a high cost when they depart.

Says Bill Quant: "By having a single leader in power for a very, very long time ... a whole political generation may lose the chance to begin to gain experience in political power and so when the leader finally goes, as they all eventually do, it can leave quite a vacuum ... (with) people who have had very little chance to play a role in the political system all of a sudden scrambling for whatever positions there are."

The analyst observes that throughout history strong personal rule has been more common than the alternative of rule by constitution. But he says that the periods of turmoil which so often follow the death of a strong ruler is the best argument for breaking with tradition.