President ibn President

In 2003, Azerbaijan set the first precedent in the CIS of a transfer of power from father to son when Ilham Aliev replaced his father, Geidar Aliev, as the country’s new president. Meanwhile, the use of democratic processes to transfer power by right of succession has become a tradition in neighboring Middle Eastern countries.

We Write Aliev and Think Aliev

Serious talk about how Ilham Aliev would one day replace his aging and ailing father began last year. At that time, a referendum was held in Azerbaijan, which resulted in several important amendments to the constitution. One of these made provision for the transfer of presidential authority to the prime minister if the president became incapacitated. Ilham Aliev was not prime minister then, but he quickly began pushing his candidacy for the post. After the referendum, the Azerbaijani opposition accused Geidar Aliev of “fixing the constitution in Ilham’s favor”, saying that now the political process in Azerbaijan was merely a decorative frame for a family clan transfer of power from father to son.

Events of the past year have shown that Geidar Aliev had good reason to hurry. After Ilham became prime minister, his father’s health took another sharp turn for the worse. Unlike the other cases, when Geidar Aliev was able to get back on his feet after visiting Western clinics, things were much more serious this time. When it finally became clear that the veteran of the Soviet Politburo and longtime leader of independent Azerbaijan was unable to carry out his presidential duties, government of the country passed to the prime minister in strict compliance with the constitution. Then early presidential elections were held in Azerbaijan, in which, as expected, Ilham Aliev won. The opposition accused the government of rigging the election results and tried to protest, but the demonstrators were quickly dispersed with clubs.

Like Mubarak to Mubarak

At the end of the year, when world news agencies reported the sensational news that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had become ill while giving a speech to Parliament, the situation seemed like an exact repeat of what had happened earlier to Geidar Aliev. The 75-year-old Mubarak immediately announced in the appropriate old-guard manner that it was just an ordinary cold. However, not even brave army officers like the Egyptian President can defeat time.

Hosni Mubarak has ruled the country for more than 20 years. He became president in 1981 after President Anwar Sadat was assassinated during a military parade in Cairo. Mubarak, who was Vice-President of Egypt at the time, became President in accordance with the country’s constitution, which stated that in such force majeure circumstances, power passed to the state’s second-ranking official. Since then, there have been three national referendums (there are no presidential elections in Egypt) in which Hosni Mubarak has invariably won another seven-year term as President. This is not surprising, since Parliament nominates a single candidate for balloting in the referendum, and more than 80% of the mandates in parliament belong to the ruling National Democratic Party, whose permanent chairman is the President himself. The office of Vice-President, which is provided for by the constitution, has been vacant all this time. Why? The answer is simple: to exclude even the theoretical possibility of a transfer of power to outside hands.

Meanwhile, it is already clear that Hosni Mubarak wants to see his younger son Gamal as the new President of Egypt, and is doing everything possible to put him in the presidential chair. Two years ago, Gamal became a member of Parliament; and last year, he was elected chairman of the Central Committee of the National Democratic Party.

There are two ways Hosni Mubarak might transfer power to his son. The first is the Azerbaijani model of making his son the second-highest state official in good time (in Egypt, this is the Vice-President), and at the critical moment transferring power to him in full compliance with the constitution. The second means is by the Syrian model, in which the son, like the present Syrian leader, Bashar Assad, would be elected President in a democratic process after his father’s death.

The Assads: from Hafez to Bashar

Three years ago, Syria became the first Middle Eastern country to demonstrate that a de jure republic can become a de facto monarchy. Syrian leader Hafez Asaad had ruled the country for 40 years without giving up the reins of government. But sensing that his days were numbered after he developed leukemia, Assad, Sr. immediately recalled his younger son Bashar from London, where he was studying ophthalmology with no thought of politics. “Only Assads must rule Syria,” the dying Hafez Assad stubbornly repeated. When he died, the ruling party controlled by the Assad clan elected Bashar as the new president.

Why did Assad, whose foresight and cunning were legendary, hand over power to Bashar? Probably because he calculated that this would allow him to kill two birds with one stone, that is, keep the Assads in power and prevent the country from becoming Washington’s whipping boy. The Western-educated Bashar was the ideal figure of the new type of politician—the pragmatic young technocrat.

To all appearances, Hafez Assad calculated correctly. Bashar understood the secrets of presidential power in the East, with its palace intrigues, and gave due consideration to his father’s caution. At the same time, the young Syrian leader made contacts with the West. Notably, at the end of last year, Bashar Assad made an official visit to London at the invitation of British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The Syrian president’s visit to George Bush’s closest ally shocked many people. The head of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs was outraged that London had received the president of a country that was “one of the sponsors of international terrorism”. However, this visit, which broke a long silence in the dialogue between Damascus and the West, was no accident. Clearly, under the present conditions, Bashar Assad cannot visit George Bush as he visited Tony Blair, and the United States’ complaints against Syria have not lessened. However, this has not prevented Bush from keeping a close eye on the Syrian leader’s actions and talking to him not only through Tony Blair, but also through his team members. Another symbolic event was US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s visit to Syria in May 2003. Thus, overall, the plan to transfer power from father to son in the Syrian Republic can be considered very successful.

Khaddafi Once, Khaddafi Twice

The Syrian scenario might well work in Libya too, especially since President Muammar Khaddafi’s likely successor is his middle son, Saif al-Islam, who has talents that no other Middle Eastern sons have dreamed of. Today, Libyans are saying that Saif al-Islam is “our future philosopher king.”

Saif al-Islam graduated from the prestigious London School of Economics, but he considers painting to be his true calling. Unlike Gamal Mubarak, Saif al-Islam Khaddafi is so far uninterested in politics (or pretends that he is uninterested), although he tirelessly runs a personal PR campaign both at home and abroad, realizing that a future politician, like an artist, must be recognized.

Last summer in London, a large white tent went up right across from the famous Royal Albert Hall. In the tent were women drummers of the Tuareg tribe, and Khaddafi’s son, surrounded by bodyguards, grandly swigging a glass of champagne among painted canvases. The name of the exhibition was “Retrospective of 2000 Years of Libyan Art.” Saif al-Islam painted most of the pictures, and the exhibition’s main visitors were businessmen who respectfully bowed and scraped before the artist. The interest in the personality of Saif al-Islam and his art most likely had a hidden pragmatic motive, namely, the dream of getting into fabulously oil-rich Libya. Although to all appearances the question of a power transfer in Tripoli will not arise anytime soon, Muammar Khaddafi’s other three sons are not suitable as successors.

Saif al-Islam’s younger brother Saadi is mad about football. As head of the Football Federation, he does only what brings him rewards. This narcissist has no longing for the role of national leader. Another brother, Mutasim, is famous only for a scandal in Italy, where he discharged a fire extinguisher on local police. Finally, another older brother, Mohammed, is serious, sensible, and educated (he graduated from the University of Liverpool); but there is one problem: his mother, Colonel Khaddafi’s first wife, is in disfavor.

No More Husseins

In nearby Iraq, there was no transfer of power from father to son owing to the military operation of the United States and its allies, although the country had every chance of becoming an exemplary model of the new Eastern monarchy.

It is said that two years before the war, it was decided at a family council held in Saddam’s native city of Tikrit that Qusay, one of the Iraqi leader’s sons, would inherit the post of president. Many months before the start of Saddam’s last war, Qusay became Iraq’s chief enforcer. He became head of the security forces, the secret service, the Republican Guard (the “Golden Division”), and his father’s personal guard. He was also Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Iraqi armed forces and commander of the Northern Command, set up to fight against Iraqi Kurds.

Interestingly enough, Qusay was not initially regarded as Saddam’s successor. That honor was supposed to go to Saddam’s older son, Uday, who had been prime minister several years before and had made hundreds of millions of dollars from smuggling oil to Jordan. Saddam had named him successor in the mid-1990s, but then had second thoughts for various reasons. First, Uday had beaten one of his father’s retainers to death after accusing him of pimping (at the time, Saddam was seeing Shamira Shahbandar, who later became his second wife). In the heat of the moment, Saddam even wanted to execute Uday, but then tempered his justice with mercy and banished Uday to Switzerland. Then in 1996, unknown assailants fired on Uday’s Mercedes, and Uday was hit in the legs and spine. After recovering from his injuries, Uday once again caused a scandal by killing a bodyguard who had displeased him in some way. Shortly after, a woman he was trying to rape died at his hands. These incidents dashed Uday’s dreams of becoming the new Iraqi dictator. This brawler on crutches was clearly unfit for the role of strong leader beloved by the people.

However, their final battle with the Americans, in which they were both killed, gave Qusay and Uday equal rights to the presidency.