Special Reports



Alessandro Bruno


Political Succession in Arab Africa
Apart from the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia, the Middle East is currently ruled by young and western educated leaders, who have a very good understanding of the West and of public relations. King Abdullah of Jordan, President Bashir al-Asad of Syria and Prime minister Saad al-Hariri of Lebanon have close ties to London and Paris and they have adopted the language of political and economic reform that almost makes one forget that all three are de-facto ‘hereditary’ rulers. King Abdullah succeeded his father, Hussein in a smooth transition in 1999. In 2000, Bashir al-Asad was appointed leader of the Ba’ath party and the army, and then elected president with 97% of the votes; in 2007 he won a second mandate after a referendum with no challengers for the post. Saad al-Hariri was appointed leader of the ‘March 14’ alliance that emerged in the wake of the murder of his father, Rafiq al-Hariri, and the related anti-Syrian campaign in Lebanon. In 2009, the March 14 coalition finally made enough compromises and deals with the various Lebanese political actors to be able to lead a national unity government. Largely these political transitions proceeded smoothly and with few surprises.

In Syria, Bashir was groomed to follow his father (after the death of his brother Basil in 1994); King Abdullah was ultimately chosen by King Hussein on his deathbed, though Jordan, a kingdom, poses fewer succession issues than the ‘republics’ of the Arab world. Saad Hariri was propelled to political leadership in the wake of his father’s murder and the strong anti-Syrian reaction to it, aided and abated by the United States, France and Saudi Arabia. Unlike the other two leaders mentioned here, Saad had to win an election and make significant political compromises before being able to take office.

Political Succession in North Africa: a General Outlook
In North Africa, with the exception of Morocco, ruled by a young king, Mohammed VI, who succeeded his father Hassan II in July 1999, the issue of political succession is more problematic. Here we will consider mostly succession issues as they concern Tunisia, Algeria, Libya and Egypt.

These are not kingdoms and do not have formal hereditary mechanisms in place, to promote the children of the current rulers to the leadership of their respective countries. Libya itself poses a unique problem, seeing, as it is not even a ‘republic’ with a president as head of state. Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi has used several epithets before his name, except for president (‘ra’is’ in Arabic). Qadhafi lacks a formal institutional role,(adding to the difficulty of interpreting Libya). Tunisia and Algeria started out their post-independence paths in a similar manner. Algeria experimented with political democracy in 1992, enabling the Islamist parties to gain access to parliament and prompting a civil war. Tunisia has developed into a police state, claiming to be a republic, where nevertheless, personal individual freedoms are more respected – and enforced – than in any other Arab country (with the possible exception of Lebanon).

Egypt, meanwhile, may face a more delicate situation. There have been strong expectations that President Hosni Mubarak’s 46-year old son Gamal will become president, especially, as Hosni Mubarak underwent intrusive surgery in Germany last February. Inasmuch as president Hosni Mubarak intends to remain as president, his health has raised speculation over the succession. Those who insist that Gamal al-Mubarak will become president ignore the primary role of the armed forces and security apparatus in Egyptian society; after president Nasser, who led a coup against the monarchy, the post-Mubarak era in Egypt, the most populous country, is all but clear.

While, the problems of the Middle East have daily repercussions, North Africa has been better able to hide the symptoms of its population’s dissatisfaction with the ruling class over the past decade. Algeria has witnessed bombings attributed to ‘al-Qaida’ (al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb or AQMI) in 2007 and some labor action. In Tunisia and Libya, the state security apparatus have been able to contain malcontent. There were anti-western riots in Tripoli and Benghazi in 2006 after the ‘Muhammad caricature’ incident that had violent consequences, as police tried to control them, but the anger was mostly directed against the West (Italy on that occasion). The closest examples of social protest in North Africa took place in Egypt. Rioters protested a 30% rise in the price of bread in 2008. That reminded the world of the food riots that damaged president Sadat in the late 1970’s after he tried to reduce subsidies for basic food items. In Algeria, there were other events such as the dispute between young Algerians and Chinese workers in Algiers.

The various incidents are all generally isolated and they do not necessarily hint toward a more widespread social and political malaise; however, what is certain is that the people are ever more distant from their governments, having lost trust that they can achieve change through elections. This does not bode well for democracy or political progress in the region. The population is ever more detached from the leadership and important political changes will be made with little regard for their concerns, such that violence, strikes and street protest will remain the only tools through which to express grievances. This does not mean that the region’s leaders will be freer to pursue their agendas; the people’s ever-growing rift will lead to a lack of identification in the leadership eroding social unity and legitimacy or consensus. The high population growth and the fact that youth represent the majority of the population in the region, and the chronically high unemployment or underemployment, added to the waning trust in the political leadership, constitute the major regional security threat, fueling extremism and illegal migration toward Europe. The matter of political succession in North Africa is not easy to classify, but it has wide implications for the future of the region that go beyond Islamic fundamentalism or terrorism, which continue to draw the greatest amount of attention from western observers.

Political succession, given the unresolved socio-economic and political issues that linger in the region, constitutes perhaps the most significant issue in North Africa, seeing as within the next decade four presidents are slated to change because of natural causes or retirement. In Morocco, King Hassan II had gradually opened the legislative system to include more mechanisms through which the population might express its concerns, such that his son Mohammed VI inherited a more modern system when he ascended to the throne in 1999. While not yet a truly constitutional monarchy, Morocco under Mohammed VI has the government with the highest potential for democratic development. The challenge is for the other governments of the region to open the decision making process, but it may already be too late, particularly in Egypt, where the issue of succession is most imminent and most problematic, given its importance in the regional and international balance. Indeed, the ‘who succeeds and how’ are less relevant than what measures are taken to engage the public in the decision making process. The tired old authoritarian approach would only go so far as to change the leaders’ names, leaving all else unchanged. Of course, there are institutions, like the military or the security apparatus that benefit from political stagnation; and the challenge for the future leaders in North Africa will be how to dismantle, or even simply reduce, the influence of their respective bloated and corrupt ‘mukhabarat’ (the security apparatus).

The Weakness of the ‘Dynastic’ Approach
In North Africa, there is a mounting rejection of dynastic tendencies and no state leader, other than a monarch, will openly admit to be orchestrating dynastic succession mechanisms. In Egypt, Gamal Mubarak has openly denied any presidential ambitions (even if the National Democratic Party has made some room for him as well as preparing for necessary constitutional changes to allow for his potential candidature).The same applies to Saif ul-Islam al-Qadhafi at the peak of his internal and international popularity. In Tunisia, President Ben Ali’s son-in-law, Sakhr el-Materi, was elected to lead the central committee for the ruling ‘Rassemblement Constitutionnel Démocratique’ party, setting the stage for his political rise to take over from Ben Ali, when the latter decides to retire. In Algeria, Bouteflika’s youngest brother, Said, is involved in a “grass roots’ movement that could serve as the stepladder to the presidency.

In Libya, Saif ul-Islam has tried to position himself as the champion of democratic change, promoting a committee to draft a constitution (Libya has no such document other than the “Green Book”), establishing NGO’s and promoting human rights. But the security elite considers his agenda as a threat, leading it to promote his brother al-Mutasim, as well as taking intransigent international positions that make little sense to the outside observer. In general, the dynastic approach carries its own special risk. The longstanding North African regimes rely on the personality or historical legacy of the leader or party, which they represent. Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi, in Libya, built his reputation on the coup – or revolution as he calls it – which he led in 1969. The Libyan leader cultivates the myth of the September 1 1969 coup actively and in the most recent annual celebration, he was able to highlight his defiant character (by extension, Libya’s defiant character) parading convicted Lockerbie bomber Ali-Basset al-Megrahi, who was released from a Scottish prison conveniently in time for the big event. Without Colonel, al-Qadhafi, the current Libyan ‘state’ apparatus would collapse; the logical and practical faults would be too evident for anyone to wish to continue to uphold such a state, or technically ‘non-state’ rather. Similarly, in Algeria, Bouteflika remains the last holder of the legacy of the FLN and the struggle for independence; his successor will have to offer something more than past glories, to gain legitimacy.

The political succession in Egypt is the one of most immediate concern. President Hosni Mubarak underwent surgery in March and he will be 82 years old next May. He is said to have suffered from depression after the death of his 12 –year old grandson in 2009, and it is likely he will not run in the next presidential elections scheduled for 2011. there has been much speculation that president Mubarak’s son, the western educated investment banker Gamal Mubarak will be proposed as the candidate for the National Democratic Party (NDP – the ruling party since Gamal Abdul Nasser’s coup in 1954); however, in Egypt true power rests with the military – the most powerful military in the Arab world – and the security apparatus; Gamal Mubarak may be regarded as unsuitable and inexperienced. Other names that are being suggested are Amr Moussa, the current head of the Arab League and the internationally respected former IAEA secretary, Mohammed el-Baradei. Both face the hurdle of not being registered in an officially recognized party, much less the NDP; however, the rumor of a potential el-Baradei candidature has invigorated the political process in Egypt, raising the topic of true political reform. The Egyptian opposition, which in parliament is largely represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, has far more power on ‘the street’ than in parliament.

The fundamentalists’ agenda and influence derive much strength from the international situation. Mubarak is considered to have been very soft on Israel, seeing as Egypt has largely complied to Israeli demands to seal the border with Gaza at Rafah to control infiltration of people and goods in violation of the Israeli imposed embargo. The continuation of the Palestinian crisis, which is reaching a point of hopelessness in spite of the US administration’s evident irritation with the Netanyahu government, will represent a tough test for the Egyptian government. The Egyptian street will demand more solidarity with the Palestinians, while the government, eager to maintain the flow of some USD 2 billion in aid from the United States (something which the military establishment is especially eager not to lose), may be drawn into an untenable – vis-à-vis the Egyptian ‘street’ - pro-Israeli stance, raising the profile of the fundamentalists. Seeing as American military and financial aid is contingent on the continued maintenance of the Egyptian-Israeli peace deal, the Egyptian military establishment will be all the more concerned to back a presidential candidate that can be relied upon not to take an excessively pan-Arab nationalist outlook, so as not to later the status-quo.

In Libya, the continued power of colonel Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi, who is now the longest ruling leader in Africa; it is notable that dubious Libyan decisions since 2008, which appear to be reversing the openness policy that emerged in 2004 with the famous renunciation of ‘weapons of mass destruction,’ have raised speculation over a family leadership feud. Saif ul-Islam al-Qadhafi has been widely praised for his efforts to bring Libya back into the ‘international community’; he has had some important supporters in government such as the head of the National Oil Company, Shukry al-Ghanem, and like-minded western educated technocrats. In the past two years, Said has irritated the security apparatus with frank revelations of Libyan failures in newspapers under his control, and in public statements. The security apparatus is now backing Saif ul-Islam’s brother, Motasem Bilah’, who is responsible for security issues, and is far less liberal than is his older brother. The Libya - Switzerland dispute, which recently prompted Col. Qadhafi to call a Jihad against the latter country, has highlighted the fact that the pragmatists have been silenced in Libya for the time being. Moreover, Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi’s mercurial ambitions may well return to the general Arab, or even the international sphere, seeing as his bid to stay on as president of the African Union was rejected. This suggests the Arab and/or nationalist stance may be intensified, further alienating pragmatist policies. The oil price is sufficiently high to enable him to maintain stability through subsidies (rather than through real economic reform), and through a very sophisticated repressive apparatus, which keeps social tensions well below the surface. Should the oil price fall in the medium term, particularly as Iraq starts developing its huge potential, challenging Saudi Arabia for OPEC’s leadership, the cracks in the regime will come to the fore, raising the profile of the pragmatists and potentially leading to a Qadhafi family feud.

In Tunisia, 73 year old President Ben Ali has ruled since he led a bloodless coup against President Bourguiba in 1987. In October 2009, Ben Ali was reconfirmed as president after ‘winning’ 89% of the vote in elections that were highly criticized by international human rights groups and media. Tunisia is one of the most secular countries in the Arab world, so much that President Bourguiba was noted for discouraging his citizens from practicing the Ramadan fast, calling it a ‘backward’ practice that hindered development. Tunisia has also made impressive economic progress without relying on oil or extractive resources; it has a semblance of middle class and reliable financial institutions, making it a preferred recipient of foreign investment (rather than aid).

Tunisia is considered the most competitive economy in Africa and one of the most competitive in the world. Despite political and human right violations, there is little incentive for the West to support ‘democratic’ change in a country that remains a model of development, for the rest of the continent. Reflecting Tunisia’s modernist tendencies, even the Islamic opposition is different from that of its neighbors. The main opponent is Rachid Ghannouchi, who lives in exile in London as leader of the Al-Nahda party; Ghannouchi promotes an Islamic democracy and opposes violence; he is more pragmatic than most Islamist leaders, suggesting that the Islamic principles must be adapted to local realities rather than vague principles. Ghannouchi is also keen on promoting women’s rights. However, Ghannouchi is facing increasing opposition within his own party because of his rejection of violent methods against Ben Ali’s leadership. Evidently, the West’s wars in the middle-east have strengthened the more ‘nationalist’ variety of Islamism. Ghannouchi’s situation reflects the problems facing a number of moderate or progressive Islamic inspired political movements, forced by the street to become more ‘active’.

In Algeria, a very dynamic civil society, shaped by a protracted war of independence in the 1950’s and 60’s, and a failed democratic experiment on the 1990’s, has come under increasing pressure by an ever more authoritative presidency. Algeria has universal suffrage, but the constitution was changed in 2008 allowing the president to run for an unlimited number of terms. Previously, the president was limited to one 5-year term, renewable once. The last presidential elections were held in February 2009, predictably won by Bouteflika in a landslide. Several parties boycotted the election, making the victory rather hollow from the democratic standpoint, and in many ways from being one of the most democratic countries in the region, Algeria is becoming increasingly authoritative in the manner of Tunisia. Bouteflika’s legitimacy rests on his economic performance (Algeria relies on oil and gas extraction), but his legacy is increasingly one of political regress, which seeing as he has eroded the democratic mechanisms that were introduced in the early 1980s’, may lead to instability when he is finally ready to leave power. Abdelaziz Bouteflika is facing little opposition from parliamentary forces. He was re-elected in 2009 for a third mandate, thanks to a strategy to weaken opposition parties while increasing presidential powers. The main threats to the regime remain external.

The Islamist threat represented by al-Qaida since the start of the past decade, and the brutal civil war between the Islamist parties and the government in the 1990’s, has strengthened the security apparatus and the army. This has also helped to erode the influence of civil society and the opposition now has little capacity to effect political or institutional change. More than other countries in the region, with the possible exception of Egypt, Algeria continues to pose a high risk of terrorism, a phenomenon that the government exploits to gradually reduce civil liberties and democracy. Algeria suffered an almost 20-year conflict between Islamist militants and the government, resulting in the deaths of some 200,000 people. Even though violence has waned considerably, the militants who now operate under the ‘Al-Qaida in the Maghreb’ (AQMI) banner, are trying to re-establish themselves in rural communities. Algeria’s central position in the Sahara desert, at the crossroads of a growing arms, drug and human trafficking phenomenon from West Africa to the northern Mediterranean, continues to sustain the importance and power of the military establishment. Algeria’s support for Western Sahara’s independence from Morocco has generated some regional tensions, and despite its good relationship with the United States, Algeria is somewhat more internationally isolated than are its Tunisian and Moroccan neighbors.

Compared with so many of their neighbours to the south, the African Arab states are considerably more advanced, economically, militarily and politically, although there this is patchy, given the ‘Big Man’ tendency at the pinnacles of power, common to so many states in Africa generally. But at the same time, the distance to be traveled towards democracy by many of these nations has less far to go, once the will towards modernizing their politics, matches their ambitions in other directions. As the near neighbours of the European Union nations, their elites inevitably will be influenced by the comparisons with their democratic neighbours and trading partners to the north, which a new generation may well want to emulate.