Editor: Bruce Maddy-Weitzman December 5, 2009
Last July, almost unnoticed by the international media, Jordan's King
Abdallah II nominated his 15-year old son, Prince Hussein, as heir to
the throne, ending five years of speculation as to the identity of
his designated successor. According to Jordan's constitution,
Hussein, whose glasses and gentle appearance have led Jordanians to
nickname him "Harry Potter", can become King only at the age of 18.
Considering that teenagers mature slowly nowadays, and that the young
prince is expected to follow a family tradition of distinguished
academic studies and tough military training, it is unlikely that
Prince Hussein will be ready to assume any serious royal
responsibilities during the coming decade.
This raises a question that bears potentially worrisome implications
for the Hashemite Kingdom: King Abdallah is a healthy, popular and
skillful leader, but what would happen in Jordan if anything happens
to him in the near future? The constitutional answer is provided in
article 28 (g): a regent or a council of regency will be appointed.
But this is no guarantee for stability. The current diffusion of
power in Jordan's royal scene suggests that a number of princes might
consider themselves as suitable caretakers and perhaps even as
legitimate heirs. This is a sure recipe for a period of disunity and confusion.
The late King Hussein was well aware of the fragility of his kingdom,
and that it required an able heir to be ready to assume his duties at
all times. That was the prime reason he amended the constitution in
1965 and appointed his brother Hasan to the post of Crown Prince,
instead of his son Abdallah, an infant at the time. On January 24,
1999, on his death bed and nursing grudges against his brother,
Hussein replaced him with his now-adult son. Hussein's last command
to Abdallah was that he appoint his 18-year old half-brother Hamza as
heir to the throne. It was an emotional command: Hamza was Hussein's
favorite son, described by him in his farewell letter to Prince Hasan
as the boy who "has been envied since childhood because he was close
to me". But not only emotions were involved. Hussein, a sophisticated
politician, recognized the need for Abdallah to appoint an heir who
would be ready to assume the responsibilities of the crown almost
instantaneously if needed.
King Abdallah obeyed his father's command and appointed Hamza as his
heir. Yet in 2004 he "excused" Hamza from his position. No
confrontation between the two had apparently ensued, nor were health
considerations considered to be a factor in Hamza's removal as
designated heir. By all appearances, Hamza remained loyal to his
half-brother. Jordanian and Arab analysts suggest that Abdallah's
motivation was simply that of a proud father who wished to see, one
day, his son wearing his crown. But the direct implication of
Abdallah's moves is that in the next decade, the Kingdom's political
stability is tied to his own fate.
In Syria, the succession question is shrouded in even greater
mystery. President Bashar al-Asad has no designated successor. His
first born son, Hafiz, is only eight years old. The Syrian parliament
demonstrated great flexibility in adopting a republican-monarchist
system, when immediately after President Hafiz al-Asad's death on
July 2000 it amended article 84 of the constitution and reduced the
minimum age for president from 40 to 34, in order to accommodate the
34-year old Bashar. However, even the Syrian parliament will not
amend the constitution so as to allow an eight-year old child to
become the head of state.
Hafiz al-Asad based his regime on two circles: a broad base of
popular support, nurtured by a personality cult, and an inner circle
of support from the Alawi community, motivated by the desire of his
own sect to safeguard the leadership of one of their own kin. Hence,
both emotional and practical reasons convinced him that only a member
of the Asad family could sustain both circles. He also feared, with
good reason, that the Syrian regime would not be able to endure a
power vacuum. Thus, for almost all of his years in power, his
designated successor was well known to all, although never officially
declared. From the early 1970s, through the middle of the 1980s it
was his brother Rif`at. After Rif`at fell from grace, the
heir-designate was Asad's eldest son Basil. Immediately after Basil
died in a car accident in January 1994, Bashar was called back from
London, where he was doing subspecialty training in ophthalmology,
and gradually assumed the position of heir apparent.
Bashar did not change the underpinnings of his father's regime, but
he handles the succession issue differently. No single member of his
immediate family, or any other politician for that matter, can be
pinpointed as heir to the presidency. Bashar and his wife Asma are
both personally popular and shrewd tacticians. But Syria's president
has many enemies, internally and externally; and should he suddenly
be assassinated or die of natural causes, the Ba`th regime would find
itself under severe stress as it strove to agree on a successor.
Egypt's problem of succession is likely to be more immediate. It is
very clear who the 81-year old President Husni Mubarak wishes to see
as Egypt's next president - his 46-year old son Gamal. In recent
years, father and son have worked hard to lay the political and
popular foundations for Gamal's accession. But there are reasons to
believe that Egypt's transformation to the Gumlukiyya model (the
pejorative Arabic neologism referring to a combination of republic
and monarchy) will not be as smooth as Syria's was. First, it
remains to be seen if Egypt's defense and intelligence establishments
will agree to the appointment of Gamal, a businessman lacking in
military leadership, or advance one of their own as a candidate.
Second, Egypt is a far more open society than Syria. Gamal's ascent
to power is likely to draw harsh criticism from the opposition Muslim
Brotherhood, from liberal activists, and possibly also from powerful
members of the ruling National Democratic Party, who are currently
afraid to upset his father, the sitting president of Egypt for 28
years. So far, Husni Mubarak has refrained from any move that would
secure son's status as designated successor. Perhaps he calculates
that the time is not ripe yet.
The Jordanian, Syrian and Egyptian regimes, all of whom are Israel's
immeidate neighbors, have maintained a stable hold on power for
decades. The 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat in Egypt and
subsequent generational changes in Jordan and in Syria at the turn of
the new century did not disrupt that reality. However, the current
situation is such that the death of any of those three countries'
leaders is likely to result in a period of political turmoil that
might affect Israel's interests.
This picture of potential instabilities is complemented by a similar,
and even more immediate set of circumstances in the Palestinian
sphere, owing to 74-year old Mahmoud Abbas's recent threats not to
run for reelection as President of the Palestinian Authority. His
move demonstrated that a crisis of succession should be expected
sooner, rather than later in the West Bank. No single individual in
his governing Fatah movement appears able to mobilize broad support,
and Abbas (Abu Mazen) seems to have neither the capability nor the
ambition of cultivating an heir.
The leaders of the region give the appearance of feeling very secure
in regard to their immediate futures. Or perhaps it is the opposite
feeling that stops them from constructively addressing the succession issue.
TEL AVIV NOTES is published with the support of the V. Sorell Foundation
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