Latter-Day Sultans

Latter-Day Sultans

Mini Teaser: Armed with pitch-perfect talking points for the Facebook generation, a clique of fortunate sons in the Middle East is set to take over their fathers' sclerotic dictatorships. But this is not regime change. Monarchy is back.

by Author(s): Daniel Byman

AS YOU drive through the streets of Tripoli, Muammar el-Qaddafi, Libya’s Brotherly Leader and Guide to the Revolution, beams down upon you. From huge billboards to kitschy key chains, the Leader, as Libyans call him, is everywhere. Indeed, for Libyans it is impossible to imagine life without him: Qaddafi took power over forty years ago and is now the world’s longest-serving nonroyal ruler. In his prime, he championed a host of revolutionary causes and implemented what he declared to be an Islamic form of socialism mixed with Arab nationalism. Qaddafi even christened the term jamahiriya—“state of the masses”—to describe the Libyan system. Yet despite this mix of égalité and fraternité, Libya looks set to become, in practice, a hereditary monarchy with Qaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, as the dauphin.

Although Libya is always a bit, shall we say, singular in its politics, in this monarchical shift it is not alone: the transformation of so-called republican regimes into monarchies is a depressing trend in the Arab world today. They call this jumlukiya, a mix of the words for republic (jumhuriya) and monarchy (malikiya).

Indeed, most of the Arab world remains a stranger to the democratic transfer of power. Ironically, back in the 1950s, military leaders began to overthrow monarchs—first in Egypt (which served as a model for others), then in Yemen and Libya. The revolutionaries rejected the royals as hidebound and aloof from the wishes of the people; yet inevitably the system produced a set of leaders who emphasized stability over revolutionary dynamism.

Syria, the bastion of Arab nationalism, was the first of these states to become a de facto monarchy as our century turned; ruled by Hafez al-Assad for almost thirty years, his son, Bashar, took over in 2000. This phenomenon is set to continue. Hosni Mubarak is the longest-serving leader of Egypt since the nineteenth century. At eighty-two and ailing, he has maneuvered to put his son Gamal near his throne, and the chance of Gamal taking power, which seemed slim a decade ago, is now high. Ali Abdullah Saleh began ruling Yemen in 1978, and though the politics there are always murky, his son Ahmed is making a run for power. (Iraq too would have fallen into this category, with Saddam Hussein grooming his sons to take over, if not for the 2003 U.S. invasion.) And as Mubarak, Qaddafi (sixty-eight) and Saleh (sixty-five) die or become incapacitated in the coming years, hereditary monarchy will soon be the dominant form of government in the Arab world, in practice, if not always in title.

THE NEW leaders are replacing a set of autocrats who are at best sclerotic (Mubarak), often weak and petulant (Saleh), and at times bizarre (Qaddafi). These regimes are all dictatorial, and economic growth has stagnated. Well-governed countries are all alike; but every poorly governed kleptocracy is unhappy in its own way. Egypt—once the cultural and political leader of the Arab world—has seen oil wealth and greater openness of several Arab states lead to its increased marginalization. Libya, despite its oil income, often has the depressing feel of a former-Soviet-bloc country, with a mix of dilapidated infrastructure and onerous security procedures. In Yemen, chaos is growing, while the country’s limited petroleum reserves are steadily being tapped out.

Western observers understandably hope that new brooms, even if from the same family closet, will sweep things clean. Feeding this optimism is the fact that the potential leaders are all far more at home with the West than their fathers—speaking English, sporting impressive degrees from Western universities, and often knowing the ins and outs of modern finance. At the very least, these new heirs talk the talk. Often beguiling to Westerners, they do not have the conspiratorial mind-set of some of those they are set to replace and, in fluent English, speak eloquently of the need for economic, political and social reform. Though none of these various would-be leaders emerged from the armed forces, and their military backgrounds are weak, they are quite media savvy, adeptly pitching themselves to the younger generation that has benefited from the regimes’ crony capitalism.

Egypt’s heir apparent, Gamal Mubarak (tellingly referred to as “Jimmy” by many Egyptians), was educated at the American University in Cairo and for a while was an investment banker for Bank of America in London. In his rhetoric and politics, the younger Mubarak has emphasized economic growth and openness, and has encouraged commerce-friendly moves such as devaluing the Egyptian pound. Gamal, in interviews with Western journals, praises Margaret Thatcher for her economic transformation of the United Kingdom. He also created the Future Generation Foundation to promote the economic and political roles of younger Egyptians and ran a private-equity fund. In 2000, he became a leader of the National Democratic Party (NDP), the regime’s vehicle for running the country and controlling Parliament, eventually becoming its de facto head. Three years later, he championed legislation to improve human rights and abolish Egypt’s security courts. In general, he portrays himself as a reformer, emphasizing the needs and hopes of a younger generation. Recently he has tried to raise his security profile, flanking himself with generals at several public occasions.

The narrative is much the same for Saif al-Islam, the oldest son of Qaddafi’s second wife. Since the Leader’s first marriage ended in divorce, Saif al-Islam is at the top of the family pyramid. He too is Western educated, including a PhD from the London School of Economics. Through the Qaddafi Foundation, which he runs, he has tried to resolve international disputes and has promoted talk of human rights—in many ways, as University of Exeter scholar Larbi Sadiki argues, Saif “provides the function of loyal opposition.” (In 2010, I traveled to Libya for a counterterrorism conference as a guest of the Qaddafi Foundation.) You can poke Saif on his Facebook page, and his rhetoric is loaded with buzzwords designed to appeal to a Western audience: he calls for a flat tax of 15 percent, supports projects dealing with climate change, and his dissertation uses wonderful terms like “civil society,” “global governance” and “democratisation” in its title. He has publicly criticized the denial of the Holocaust and noted that “Libya has no problems dealing with Israel.” Most importantly, he pushed for the country to abandon its nuclear-weapons program. When asked about how much freedom Libyans should have, Saif told a Western reporter, “I am talking about the level of freedom like in Holland.”

At home, Saif has pushed for economic reform and supported efforts to combat drug abuse. In one of his more daring campaigns, he has tried to weaken the power of Libya’s revolutionary committees, a strong bureaucratic force that is dedicated to securing Qaddafi’s revolution and thus suspicious of any reforms that involve the free market, closeness to the West or implicit criticism of the Leader’s past policies. The committees were involved in some of Libya’s most egregious human-rights violations during the 1990s, when threats to the regime led to bloody crackdowns. Saif al-Islam has also pushed a terrorist-rehabilitation program and has served as an emissary for the regime, playing key roles in the freeing of Western hostages in the Philippines and resolving problems with the United States and United Kingdom related to the 1988 bombing by Libyan agents of Pan Am 103, which killed two hundred seventy people. While these efforts have earned Saif plaudits abroad, he has also helped bring back one of these bombers from jail in Scotland, which enhanced his nationalist credentials at home. Saif’s family members hold powerful economic and security positions in Libya, further entrenching his power.

Of the three potential heirs, Yemen’s Ahmed Saleh seems the weakest potential leader; he flunked out of Sandhurst and made little impression as a parliamentarian after taking a seat in 1997. He heads the country’s Republican Guard and other elite forces, but he has only limited support in the military, in part because he evinces little respect for the officer corps. Perhaps inevitably, he too heads an NGO—the Saleh Foundation—which is in charge of building the grand Saleh mosque, supporting the Special Olympics and other charitable activities, like providing medical assistance to Yemenis. Saleh has played up his role in the organization for the media. Cynics believe he is simply trying to worm his way into the foreign humanitarian aid coming into Yemen.

It remains unclear if Yemeni elites would accept him as his father’s heir. As Yemen expert Barak Barfi pointed out:

Though Ahmed has his hands in military, political and business affairs, he is not particularly astute. He lacks palatable strengths and has proved unable to successfully manage the tasks assigned to him. Moreover, he neither has his father’s foresight nor his penetrating understanding of Yemeni tribes and the need to play various elements of society against each other to survive in the country’s tumultuous political environment.1

Yet, despite all of this, he has steadily ensconced himself in Yemen’s power structure and has the backing of his, and his father’s, Hashed tribe.

Image: Pullquote: Hereditary monarchy will soon be the dominant form of government in the Arab world.Essay Types: Essay