- July 13, 2009
MIDEAST: Succession Issues Face Key U.S. Allies
Two key U.S. allies in the Arab world, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are now both facing succession crises that may absorb, or even split, their political elites. This promises a period of political unpredictability ahead in both countries.
It may well also complicate Pres. Barack Obama”s Israeli-Arab peace diplomacy, which is based centrally on the role these two large allies – and one smaller one, Jordan – can play in solving inter-Arab problems, reassuring Israelis, and helping to tempt everyone to the peace table.
Since January, the head of Egypt”s military intelligence, Lieut.-Gen. Omar Suleiman, has been in charge of three key Middle East mediations. He has been mediating between Israel and the Palestinian movement Hamas over both strengthening the Gaza ceasefire and winning a prisoner exchange between them. He”s also been mediating a chronically elusive reconciliation between Hamas and the other big Palestinian movement, Fatah.
Meanwhile, Washington is hoping this year, as always, that Saudi Arabia can buttress U.S. diplomacy with cash and some political leadership. Saudi Arabia has now won the support of all the relevant Arab leaderships, including Hamas”s political bureau, for a key 2002 peace initiative that promises Israel normal political and economic ties in return for a full Israeli withdrawal from lands occupied in 1967 and a fair resolution of Palestinian refugee claims.
The Saudi king, Abdullah ibn Abdul-Aziz, will be 85 this August. His longstanding crown prince (and half-brother) Sultan ibn Abdul-Aziz, is 83, and was recently hospitalised for several weeks with suspected cancer.
The big question regarding the Saudi succession hangs over whether, and how, the kingship will ever be transferred from the numerous ageing brothers and half-brothers who stand in line after Crown Prince Sultan, to the “next generation” of princes – some of the more senior of whom are already nearing 70 years old.
Earlier this year, King Abdullah named his 76-year-old half-brother Naif ibn Abdul-Aziz as “second deputy prime minister”, a position that places him a likely – but not certain -second in line to throne after Sultan.
When King Abdul-Aziz ibn Saud, the founder of the modern Saudi state, died in 1953, he left some 37 sons from his 22 wives. Various of these sons have ruled the kingdom in turn since then.
Many of Abdul-Aziz”s sons had a dozen or more sons of their own. Saudi Arabia has no system of “primogeniture” (first-son succession.) Thus, there are hundreds of possible eventual claimants to the throne. Indeed, the youngest of Abdul-Aziz”s sons, Prince Muqrin, is, at 64, some years younger than several of the next-generation princes who now hope to become king.
There have been no reports that any possible successor monarchs might want to change a foreign policy stance that, since the 1930s, has aligned Saudi Arabia very closely with Washington. But among the country”s political elite, including its princes, there are many differing views on domestic affairs, including oil policies, economic policies, the role of the country”s powerful religious institutions, and the role of women.
These differences are inevitably hard fought over at times of succession, and could at the least distract Riyadh from playing the role in regional diplomacy that Obama wants it to play. (At worst, the kingdom could see a struggle between its many power centres that is even deeper and more debilitating than the one now rocking nearby Iran.)
In Egypt, meanwhile, there have been many recent reports that the country”s 81-year-old president, Hosni Mubarak, is ailing and finally eager to quit. Some reports say he has already told the Saudi monarch he may not even finish serving his current six-year term in office, which ends in 2011.
Mubarak has led Egypt”s 76 million people since 1981. Throughout those years he has always refused to name a vice-president.
Now, one of the two main contenders to succeed him is his 45-year-old second son, Gamal, who has held an important post in the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) since 2002.
(It is not wholly strange that, even in a republic, a son might succeed his father as president. It has happened in North Korea, Syria, several African countries and even -with an eight-year interlude – when George W. Bush became president of the United States.)
Behind the scenes in Egypt, though, the military is still almost the same big force in the political system – and economy – that it has been since 1952. There is a considerable question whether the shadowy power centres in the Egyptian military will support Gamal Mubarak, an investment banker who has no record of service in the military.
The leading military man mentioned for possible next president is none other than Omar Suleiman, the intelligence chief who has been conducting so much of Mubarak”s sensitive Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy. (It also remains possible that the military might throw its weight behind another “insider” candidate, not Suleiman.)
The fact that Suleiman has been tasked by Pres. Mubarak with diplomatic jobs that are so important to the broader progress of Washington”s regional peace diplomacy means this diplomacy may well become entangled in any succession struggle that occurs in Cairo.
For example, if – as many well-placed Egyptians claim – Pres. Mubarak strongly wants his son to follow him in office, he may be less than eager to see Suleiman gain public kudos as a successful negotiator. There has been some questioning whether Mubarak may have set Suleiman up for failure by giving him overly strict parameters for his diplomatic chores.
Certainly, though Suleiman has been heading all three of these building-brick negotiations since late January, he has not succeeded in any of them yet.
Egypt”s succession struggle is connected to the broader diplomacy in another way, too. Hamas has nearly always been closely aligned with Egypt”s Muslim Brotherhood (MB), a broad, nonviolent Islamist movement that is the main challenger to Mubarak”s NDP.
Mubarak has never allowed the MB to participate freely in Egypt”s regime-dominated politics, though during a brief and very partial democratic opening in 2005, its candidates won 88 of the 444 elected seats in the Egyptian parliament.
If Suleiman succeeds in one or more of his diplomatic tasks, then Hamas would immediately gain much more international legitimacy as a valid participant in the broader peacemaking. Many NDP insiders fear that could reflect well on the MB, too.
Ominously enough, the most recent round of reports about Mubarak”s failing health has been accompanied by new arrest campaigns against MB leaders and activists. It is possible that Egypt might see additional political heat during the coming summer months. Jordan is smaller and weaker than Egypt and Saudi Arabia. There at least, the ruling monarch, Abdullah II, has laid to rest – for now – the questions that once swirled around his succession. On Jul. 2 he appointed his son Prince Hussein as crown prince.
Prince Hussein is only 15 years old. But since the king is only 47, there is a good chance the crown prince will not be taking over any time soon. (Or perhaps, ever. Back in 1999 when Jordan”s King Hussein died of cancer, in his very last days he revoked the appointment that his brother, Hassan, had held as crown prince since 1965; and he named Abdullah II his successor, instead.)
But in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, political succession issues are now taking centre stage.
*Helena Cobban is a veteran Middle East analyst and author. She blogs at www.JustWorldNews.org.