Mideast Faces Coming Changes to Its Old Guard
Jordan's king is among the leaders in transition across a region where democracy has largely failed to catch on.
The most popular videotape at Jordan's Royal Palace today may be one from 1992.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
When King Hussein returned home after a month away, having won a bout with illness, tens of thousands of cheering Jordanians lined the long route from the airport to the palace, sometimes stopping the impromptu royal procession.
But even as the monarch last week marked 46 years as ruler of the Hashemite Kingdom, he was in Minnesota undergoing treatment that will most likely keep him out of the country until the end of the year.
The situation has Jordanians looking at the question of succession. It also underscores a string of leadership changes likely to occur across the region in the coming years as the men who for decades have ruled - often with iron fists - and defined the modern Middle East give way to a younger generation.
The coming changes also highlight how autocratic Mideast regimes are bucking the democratic trend that has swept Eastern Europe, crept through Africa and Latin America, and shown glimmers in Asia.
For Crown Prince Hassan, brother of the king and designated heir to the throne, Jordan's future holds many problems that have already stretched the talents of the charismatic King Hussein.
The economy is depressed, democratic progress of recent years has regressed on some critical fronts, and the near-total collapse of the Arab-Israeli peace process has meant Jordan's 1994 peace treaty with Israel has yielded few dividends and a lot of public antipathy.
After so many years on the throne, up to 80 percent of the population knows no other leader.
But the crown prince's job, and his eventual role as king, will require deft handling to overcome these problems, analysts say, and to ensure that US-ally Jordan continues to play a big regional role.
"You don't want a manager," says a well-placed Jordanian, regarding the complexities. "What you need is an alchemist."
The brothers are in almost daily contact. "[The king] is not a man who is disengaged and fighting for his life," says a Western diplomat. "He may be ailing, but he is still very involved."
The king had earlier tried to calm anxieties back home by television: "Rest assured," he told Jordanians. "I am not over and done with."
Still, Jordanians and diplomats say that Hassan - though often portrayed as an aloof intellectual with little common touch - has the necessary support from the three groups that count: the Army, the security services, and Bedouins, who have long been loyal to the Hashemite family, which is directly descended from the Prophet Muhammad. He speaks as deliberately as his brother, and with tones almost as deep. But his humorous side is rarely seen in public.
"It's unfair to assess what kind of king Hassan is going to be, because he hasn't been able to strut his stuff," says the Western diplomat. "His cross will be living in the shadow of an all-embracing, generous, charismatic man about whom no Jordanian can think of life without."
Casting long shadows
That shadow applies to other long-surviving Mideast leaders as well, whose departure could mean major changes in the political landscape. The spate of coups and countercoups that plagued the region in the 1950s and 1960s - King Hussein himself survived at least a dozen assassination attempts in his first 25 years in power - are now more likely to be replaced by attrition.
* Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, for example, has been buffeted by Mideast politics since the 1960s, and negotiated the 1993 Oslo peace accord with Israel against the will of hard-line groups. The collapse of the peace process - and subsequent rise in the fortunes of Mr. Arafat's toughest Palestinian opponents - seems to have taken a heavy toll on his health.