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Middle East: Assad Death Highlights Arab World's Succession Problems

Prague, 12 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The death of Syrian President Hafez Assad this weekend sent Syrian military and political leaders scurrying to ready Assad's son, Bashar, to take his father's place. Already Bashar has been promoted from colonel to lieutenant-general and has been named commander of Syria's armed forces. Parliament has amended the constitution to reduce the minimum age of a president from 40 to 34, Bashar's age. And he has received the ruling Bath party's unanimous nomination for president.

The upheaval highlights a widespread problem in the Arab world, where a generation of leaders is aging without providing for who will follow them. Saudi Arabia's King Fahd is in his mid-70s. Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak is 71, as is Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Even when these rulers name their successors, the process is less than certain. King Hussein had named his brother as his successor for almost 35 years, but two weeks before his death last year, he 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 that brother is 77, which leaves 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 death will set off a power struggle to take his place.

Bill Quant is a Mideast expert at the Brookings Institute in Washington. In an interview on the occasion of Hussein's death last year, he said many Arab leaders deliberately leave the issue of succession vague, out of fear of creating a strong rival. He said 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 try to push them aside.

The analyst said 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.

Some leaders -- among them Syria's Assad -- groom their sons to follow them, believing they can only trust rivals from their own families. Iraq's Saddam Hussein continues to put more power into the hands of his sons, Uday and Qusay.

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.

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

But he warned 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.

"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 observed 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 are the best argument for breaking with tradition.