Dynasty and democracy go hand in hand in Middle East

IT IS ironic that a 36-year old with no real experience of politics or diplomacy may be the next Prime Minister of Lebanon. Yet Saad Hariri’s most powerful credential for the job is that he is the son of the slain Rafiq Hariri, a Sidon school teacher who rose to become a self-made billionaire in the Saudi Arabian contracting boom and has now, posthumously, scaled the pinnacle of Arab politics.

By Matein Khalid

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Published: Wed 29 Jun 2005, 10:17 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 3:16 PM

Hariri joins the elite list of Arab dynastic patriarchs who pass on their power to their sons from beyond the grave. The Hariris have clearly now joined the dynastic big league — the Jumbalatts, the Gemayels, the Frangiehs and the Chamouns, all traditional zaims (political godfathers and, on occasion, warlords) of Lebanon.

Of course, it is equally ironic that Saad Hariri’s meteoric ascent to power is based on the same dynastic principle that enabled Dr. Bashar Assad, a London trained ophthalmologist, to succeed his late father Hafez as the President of Syria. Dr. Assad’s other opponent, Walid Jumbalatt, once ran the Socialist Progressive Party during the Lebanese civil war, but owes his power to his status as the hereditary leader of the Druze, with a fortress — palace in the Chouf.

If patronage politics, clan rivalries and the cult of Omerta (as ancient a concept as Mafia) defines the Byzantine netherworld of Syrian politics, it is no different in Lebanon. After all, the tragedy of the civil war was punctuated by regular massacres of warlords and their sons in a manner reminiscent of Sonny Corleone’s fate in The Godfather.

Bashir Gemayel, the leader of the Phalange, became President of Lebanon in 1982 and was murdered by a bomb that devastated the Ashrafiyeh district of Beirut. His brother, the pharmacist Amin, succeeded the Maronite warlord as President Suleiman Frangieh was Lebanese President in the 1970’s, but a political rival of the Gemayels. So in 1978, gunmen from the Phalange massacred his son and heir Tony Frangieh, whose own son was a minister in the Lahoud cabinet. Then there were Rashid Karami and Danny Chamoun, both assassinated heirs of political dynasties in the civil war. Like Tsarist Russia, Lebanese politics are also "despotisms tempered by assassination." The dynastic principle in Arab politics goes back to the founders of the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties, after all. Amir Muawia was succeeded by his son as the commander of the Faithful, the caliph of Islam. Abul Abbas Saffah left his empire to his brother Abu Jaffer al-Mansur, the second Abbasid caliph who founded Baghdad. Some of the wealthiest, most powerful states in the Arab world are literally ruled by dynasties.

Two Arab states, Hashemite Jordan and Saudi Arabia, are even named after their ruling families. Baathist Syria, populist Libya, the military dictatorships that rule from Egypt and Yemen are all " jumlakas, to use the cynical Arabic joke, republican monarchies where the President’s son is the anointed crown prince. Jimmy in Cairo, Saif and Hannibal in Tripoli, Ali Abdullah Saleh junior in Sanaa are the chips of the old block, the successors to de facto Presidents for Life who happen to be Daddy.

As Lebanon proves, Syrian withdrawal does not end dynastic politics in quasi-feudal Arab societies. George Bush’s democratic rhetoric sounds hollow in a Middle East fragmented into sectarian schisms, tribal cleavages and family networks. This is not to argue that dynastic leaders cannot spearhead democratic reform. King Mohammed VI of Morocco, King Abdullah II of Jordan and the Sultan of Oman rose to power as eldest sons of absolute Arab monarchs but have all embraced the cause of democratic reform as an instrument of state policy.

The Darwinian nature of Arab royal politics produces some extraordinary leaders, men who survived palace intrigues in the Arabian desert to lead their nations on the global stage.

King Faisal represented Ibn Saud, his father and the founder of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, at the Versailles armistice as a teenager and is the true father of the modern Saudi petrocurrency state. King Hussein, the grandson of a murdered Hashemite king, who survived multiple assassination attempts, emerged as one of the most subtlest diplomats in the Middle East and the founder of modern Jordan. King Hassan II of Morocco, the heir to the centuries old Allawi dynasty of the Maghreb, ruled his kingdom with such moderation that successive French Presidents used Rabat to mediate between the Palestinians and Israelis.

Sure, dynastic rule often produces incompetent or unsuccessful Arab kings. Farouk of Egypt lost his throne long after he lost the respect of his people with his hedonistic, decadent lifestyle. King Ghazi of Iraq died in a car accident after alleged unstable behaviour, King Saud was replaced by his brother Faisal in 1964 because he was unable to lead the House of Saud.

The pragmatic Bedouin tradition in Arab culture has often ensured that the most competent son, the one most able to build tribal alliances and share power, would emerge as the king. So consultative monarchies rather than constitutional republics have proven more successful models of political freedom and wealth distribution, better insurance against bloody wars of succession. The Gulf emirates, particularly Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE are classic consultative monarchies. The Arab republics inherited the old Ottoman template of bureaucratic politics, elite palace guards, absolute rule and "imposed" reforms, as any visitor to Cairo, Damascus, Sanaa and Algiers will attest.

Yet the next presidential election in Egypt will be a test case for George W. Bush and Condi Rice’s democracy bandwagon. It will determine if Gamal Mubarak succeeds his father in a nation where power has banded down from father to son since times of pharaohs. "Power flows from the barrel of a gun", Chairman Mao argued. Wrong. In the Arab world, it flows from the family tree of the Big Boss and genealogical Darwinism defines the calculus of power.

Matein Khalid is a Dubai based investment banker

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