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Beyond Hussein, more crucial Mideast changes?

A cascade of other momentous leadership shifts could soon put regionalorder in question

By Helena Cobban / February 11, 1999



Political change came to Jordan at a dizzying pace over the past three weeks. It is hard to imagine a Middle East without King Hussein - and surprising still that long-serving Crown Prince Hassan did not, after all, succeed him.

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But even as Middle Easterners try to figure the implications of King Abdullah II's abrupt succession to power, they also foresee a cascade of other momentous leadership changes throughout their region.

These changes may put into question a regional order which has relied to a dangerous degree on one-man rule. They also raise valid questions about the legitimacy and stability of one-man rule in an era of modern communications and modern demands for popular participation in determining these nations' policies.

In Saudi Arabia, King Fahd is aging and in very poor health. He is unlikely to demote his half-brother Abdullah from his long-held position as crown prince - indeed, Abdullah has been carrying most of the burdens of leadership for many months now. But Abdullah is not much younger than Fahd, and the question of who will be next in line after them is a tough one. Several other sons of nation-founder King Abdul-Aziz are thought to want the throne. But at some stage, it should pass to a new generation. The question then is, whose sons will have the stronger claim? Can the extended council of Al-Saud family princes, which has decided such issues in the past, decide this one too?

Egypt and the Palestinians both face acute succession issues with aging leaders who have not named successors.

Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak has resisted all urgings that he name a deputy president, though the value of that move was shown during the republic's two previous successions, which occurred quite smoothly.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has led his people for 30 years. He used to have a formal deputy, Jihad al-Wazir. But Mr. Wazir was killed by the Israelis in 1988, and Mr. Arafat hasn't named a vice president - though his health has deteriorated rapidly and visibly over recent months.

All of those leaders are more than 70 years old. In Syria, President Hafez al-Asad has battled ill-health for many years. Back in 1983, when he was thought to be on his deathbed, an ugly battle between different military claimants to his palace raged through Damascus. He survived, and the generals had their forces reorganized. Then, though Syria is a republic, the president groomed his son, Basil, to succeed him. But Basil had a fatal car accident in 1994, and it is uncertain whether a younger son, Bashar, can win the political loyalty he would need.

Among the one-man regimes in the region, Iraq and Libya stand out for having relatively younger leaders who are not known to have any serious health problems. Iran also has a relatively youthful leader, the reform-minded President Mohamad Khatami. Though Mr. Khatami doesn't always get his way, the present Iranian system has many politically robust elements, including a lively and somewhat empowered parliament.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, parliamentary successions will bring their own uncertainties in the months ahead.

Israel will hold crucial elections this spring, in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be challenged in the direct election for his post by two respected former generals - Labor Party head Ehud Barak and Yitzhak Mordechai, who defected from Mr. Netanyahu's Cabinet to lead a new centrist party. The field will also likely include one or more virulent right-wingers. As in Israel's 1996 election, the outcome will prove fateful for peace efforts throughout the region. And as in the run-up to nearly every Israeli election since 1981, the incumbent may feel tempted to launch a big, vote-winning escalation against poor old Lebanon.

Turkey and Algeria will also be holding elections soon. In both countries, the military still holds the upper hand.

But these elections may help open up much-needed political space in the two countries. Alternatively, either might be accompanied by an escalation of existing political violence.

The funerals of major political leaders are sad affairs. But they also provide many important opportunities in modern political life: for national spectacle, for demonstrations of political loyalty, for discreet top-leader contacts - and, also, for a sober reassessment of political realities.

One of the realities in the Middle East today is that a number of regional leaders present or represented at Hussein's funeral may not be on the political scene for very much longer.

Are the political arrangements inside each country, and those so slowly and partially built among previously warring parties, robust enough to withstand these changes? The coming years will tell.

*Helena Cobban writes on foreign affairs from Charlottesville, Va.