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.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The most popular videotape at Jordan's Royal Palace today may be one from 1992.

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.

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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.

"Arafat is the big one," says Mustafa Hamarneh, director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan. "If he goes, you have a problem, because he's the only one who can negotiate and deal with the Israelis."

* King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, who has been frail and ailing for years, underwent major surgery this month. Crown Prince Abdullah is believed to be less pro-West than King Fahd, which could complicate American military arrangements in the Persian Gulf.

Even the assassination of King Faisal by a junior member of the Saud family in 1975 reportedly did not shake the political system, but the still-unsolved Khobar Towers bombing against US servicemen in 1996 points toward some internal dissent.

There have also been hints that Saudi exile Osama bin Laden was involved in that attack. He has made numerous threats against Americans and is suspected of having financed the US Embassy bombings in Africa. He has been stripped of his citizenship and is believed to be hiding in Afghanistan.

Aging sheikhs are also at the helm in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. When Qatar's reform-minded young prince, Hamad bin Khalifa, ousted his father the emir in 1995, he transformed the country overnight with a new foreign policy and did away with many internal restrictions.

* In Syria, President Hafez al-Assad's health has been an issue many times since he came to power in a 1970 coup. Only Mr. Assad, analysts say, would be able to forge a peace deal with Israel that required giving up any concessions at all on the Golan Heights, which Israel occupied in 1967. Since favored son Basil was killed in a 1994 car crash, Assad has groomed his second son, Bashar, to ensure that their ethnic Alawite minority keeps its grip on power.

* Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak is in good health, but has ruled with an authoritarian hand since he came to power after Anwar Sadat's 1981 assassination. Mr. Mubarak survived an assassination attempt in 1995, but has refused to appoint a vice president, a move that might ensure a smooth succession.

* The demise of Iraq's Saddam Hussein, in power since 1979, has been anticipated since the 1991 Gulf War sparked uprisings in the country. An assassination attempt against son Uday in Baghdad in 1996 injured the likely heir and left the succession picture uncertain.

"If [Saddam Hussein] dies or collapses, it could be a bloodbath," Mr. Hamarneh says.

Congress has directed President Clinton to take more active measures to undermine Saddam Hussein's rule. The White House recently proposed a broad covert operation and listed 73 opposition groups to turn into a "viable" replacement regime. But despite eight years of United Nations sanctions and occasional US military strikes, Saddam Hussein is firmly in charge.

Islam and democracy

Though all these regimes follow the Islamic faith, Islam is not incompatible with democracy. Mideast analysts more often attribute authoritarian rule to historical tradition. Both Iran and Turkey are democracies, with limits. But secular regimes interfering to stymie budding Islamist power - witness the violence in Algeria - only follow democratic norms when it suits them.

Back in Jordan, which has made some democratic progress, the intrigues of all these Mideast actors sometimes play themselves out in the form of assassination attempts, murders, and intelligence and diplomatic head-butting, to the point where some suggest that Jordan is becoming like Beirut in the 1970s: a place where Mideast groups settle their scores.

Clues to the crown prince's future may be on display when King Hussein returns, and compares the reception with his tumultuous 1992 welcome home.

"It has always been a balancing act - the king had a civil war in his time, but was able to draw the line and bring people back to him," says another Western diplomat. "The transition will be smooth, then there will be a proving time."

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