Arab successions a touchy issue

June 23, 2009 at 12:43 PM
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BEIRUT, Lebanon, June 23 (UPI) -- Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen all face political wrangles over who will succeed their current rulers. With many Arab leaders well past their prime, succession in several countries is plagued by uncertainties and possible upheaval.

The region is undergoing significant change. Iran appears to be caught up in a leadership crisis that could affect its Arab adversaries who face the prospect of potential convulsions of their own as they grapple with a global recession and increasingly alienated populations.

The United States, its power waning, is confronted with the possibility that its key allies for more than two generations may be leaving the scene, to be replaced by successors in a complex process that Washington will find difficult, if not impossible, to influence or control. The geopolitical risks are considerable.

The process of succession in the region has, by and large, worked smoothly in recent years -- in Jordan, Morocco and Saudi Arabia, all monarchies, and in Syria, a secular republic.

Not so long ago, succession in the republics was often settled by force of arms. But when Syria's longtime President Hafez Assad, the iron-fisted "Lion of Damascus," died in June 2000, he had groomed his second son, Bashar, to succeed him.

That established a precedent -- the Arab world's first republican dynasty -- that many in the region still view with dismay and trepidation.

In Saudi Arabia, the crown prince, Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, is believed to be terminally ill with cancer. The death of Sultan, who is said to be 84, would have significant ramifications inside and outside the kingdom.

Over the years the Saudi royal family has successfully orchestrated the monarchial succession between the sons of King Abdul Aziz, who founded the state in 1932. Since his death in 1953, the throne has passed more or less smoothly between five of his 35 sons in descending order of age.

But the time is fast approaching when the sons of the aging Abdul Aziz will have to have their turn, and that could trigger feuding between the various clans within the extended royal family.

The question of the succession in non-monarchial, ostensibly republican, regimes is more problematical and potentially explosive as the gap between rulers and ruled gets wider. Political succession in Arab countries is a highly sensitive and potentially dangerous issue.

In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak has ruled since October 1981, during which time emergency laws have been in force.

His current term expires in 2011 -- unless he decides to resign first, but he is not expected to do that unless his health, which has been causing him some problems, breaks down.

Mubarak has never designated a vice president. There is growing opposition to what people see as his plans to appoint his son, Gamal, just as Hafez Assad did in Syria.

In Libya, Col. Moammar Gadhafi's eldest son, Seif al-Islam, appears to be his chosen successor. The desert mystic is now 69 and will soon celebrate 40 years in power.

Gadhafi has crushed all organized internal opposition. The main threat to the regime lies within. There is tension between Seif al-Islam and the revolution's Old Guard, with only Gadhafi holding the balance.

In Yemen, a key U.S. ally against al-Qaida, President Abdullah Ali Saleh, who has ruled for 30 years, has been making sweeping changes in the military, weakening powerful commanders while preparing his son Ahmed, a prominent general, to succeed him.

Saleh's main target has been Gen. Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, a relative and the country's strongest army commander. Ahmar, who is head of the northwestern military region and commands the elite 1st Armored Division, is widely seen as the most likely successor if Saleh were to die an untimely death.

That could unleash all kinds of trouble. Yemen's troubles are mounting. The regime has been plagued for five years by tribal rebellion, and in the south the separatist-minded socialists are building up to a new secession bid that could ignite a civil war, as it did in 1994. And there's always the threat from a resurgent al-Qaida.

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