From father to son, Arab despotism may have merit

From father to son, Arab despotism may have merit

The problem of succession in the secular Arab republics highlights their predicament in the transition to a post-revolutionary phase, for succession in regimes failing to build strong institutions always risks triggering a systemic crisis. While the decision by some to favor dynastic succession may be democratically lacking, it is not entirely devoid of merit. Arguably, it is a choice for economic modernization, for an end to the politics of conflict, and for positive political change down the road.

Years of Western-backed repressive authoritarianism nipped in the bud any potential growth of a liberal alternative to incumbent Arab regimes, and turned any abrupt move to free elections into a dangerous exercise in Islamic democracy. A democracy that produces governments led by Hamas, Hizbullah, or the Muslim Brotherhood is inevitably bound to be anti-Western and opposed to a US-inspired “peace process” with Israel.

Syria has already sought to assure regime continuity through quasi-monarchic hereditary succession with the move from Hafez Assad to his son Bashar. There are indications that Egypt might follow suit, with Hosni Mubarak”s son, Gamal, taking over. Likewise, Libya”s Moammar Gadhafi may be succeeded by his son, Seif al-Islam. As products of revolutionary military takeovers, these secular nationalist regimes failed to produce genuine popular legitimacy and have had to fall back on the dynastic succession practiced by the regimes they toppled.

The centrality of hereditary succession in the quest for peace and stability was shown by Hafez Assad when he agreed to unprecedented goodwill gestures aimed at drawing Ehud Barak”s Israeli government into a peace deal. An old and sick man who was to die a few months later, he acted with a sense of urgency to reach a deal that would relieve his inexperienced son of the burden of struggling for the recovery of the Golan Heights.

Bashar Assad remains essentially loyal to his father”s legacy. Not unlike North Korea”s and Iran”s defiant nuclear policies, Bashar”s membership in the region”s “axis of evil” is a call for dialogue with America, not an invitation to an invasion; and for a settlement with Israel, not a drive to wage war on it.

In Egypt, Mubarak turned his back on the lofty rhetoric of Gamal Abdel-Nasser”s revolution and its grand strategic designs. Stability is at the heart of his thinking. Hence, he could not accept America”s awkward pro-democracy agenda. But he was more than willing to occupy center stage in Arab diplomacy”s support of the Annapolis peace conference. After all, the passion that the Palestinians” plight evokes among ordinary Egyptians is a dangerous source of instability.

Mubarak”s succession is being conducted in an especially sophisticated manner. His son”s ascension, unlike that of Bashar on the eve of his father”s death, is anything but settled. But, by being allowed to acquire popular legitimacy and a high degree of acceptance within the political establishment as the driving force behind the ruling party”s preparations for the post-Mubarak era, Gamal is being positioned strategically to compete effectively for the presidency.

He is widely credited for setting the country”s agenda, and for being the motor behind the liberal economic reforms that since 2004 have meant a qualitative leap in the Egyptian economy. It may be, as Mubarak”s critics argue, that the faltering progress of democratization reflects the attempt to block all potential challengers to Gamal. But, with the decline of secular nationalism and Islamism”s rise, the hidden electoral power of the Muslim Brotherhood poses a mortal threat to the regime and its strategic alliance with the West. As a result, the regime refuses to take any chances.

Nor was Gadhafi”s decision to stop being an international pariah entirely unrelated to his concern to bequeath to his son a state that lives in peace with the world. His abysmal human rights record remains, but the flamboyant “Guide of the Revolution” ceased flirting with weapons of mass destruction and global terrorism in exchange for the end of sanctions and international rehabilitation. A sick man whose rule at home is being challenged by Islamist opponents, he decided that international ostracism and domestic troubles is too explosive a combination for his son, a spoiled playboy, to handle.

Algeria is an especially difficult case. The last of the revolutionary generation, President Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika must still conceive a succession that ends his country”s civil war. Fully fledged democracy might lead to victory for Islamists, as it did in 1991.

A transition to democracy in the old revolutionary Arab regimes will not correspond to a Western model, nor can it be imposed by American F-16s. But, as countries like Egypt, Syria and Libya might be indicating, hereditary succession is not an inherently reactionary move. Rather, it means opting for a controlled transition to a post-revolutionary phase in which economic modernization and international integration might usher in greater political change in the future.

Shlomo Ben Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister and currently vice president of the Toledo International Center for Peace, is the author of “Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy.” THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate (c) (www.project-syndicate.