LONDON – The role played by Libyan ruler Muammar al-Qaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, in gaining the release of the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s state visit to Washington accompanied by his son, Gamal, suggest that dynastic successions are underway in both countries.
They are not alone. Mubarak and Qaddafi, along with Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria, are among the world’s oldest and longest-serving heads of state. All four face the ticklish problem of succession, and speculation has been mounting for some time of possible attempts to keep power in the family.
That solution is becoming pretty commonplace, from the Aliyevs of Azerbaijan to the Kims of North Korea to the Assads in Syria. Dynastic succession safeguards the immediate and frequently extensive interests of the ruling family as well as those of the wider political and business elite. But the possibility of near simultaneous successions in North Africa is striking nonetheless.
All four North African rulers have, to greater or lesser degrees, made themselves the center of highly opaque power structures. Everything in their countries depends on the person and family rather than the office. Yet, despite these authoritarian leaders’ apparently solid grip on power, ensuring that a relative takes over is not as simple as it seems. The problem boils down to overcoming possible resistance – from both the elite and the public – that could derail the handover or undermine the successor’s authority.
Dealing with elite interests requires ingenuity. Lucrative business opportunities can be allocated to soothe the successor’s political adversaries, while renegades can be targeted to discourage others – for example, by being stripped of property or dismissed from positions of influence.
Where members of the ruling family hold direct commercial interests – as in Libya and Tunisia – the political transition is certain to cause collateral economic damage. For example, if Qaddafi’s fourth son, Muatasim, emerges as the successor, he could take away Saif al-Islam’s business holdings and ability to profit from foreign contracts. In Tunisia, a successor from the Trabelsi branch of the Ben Ali clan – linked to the president through his second wife, Leila Trabelsi – could target the extensive interests of families related to Ben Ali’s daughters from a previous marriage.
Securing popular legitimacy requires equal dexterity, which has played an important role in preventing North African leaders and family members from openly admitting their preparations for dynastic successions.
In Egypt, where such preparations are the most obvious, Gamal and other senior figures have stubbornly denied his presidential ambitions. At the same time, room has been made for Gamal to build a public profile of his own through his senior role in the ruling party, and a constitutional framework has been put in place that will allow him to be elected in multi-candidate elections, thus establishing a façade of republican legitimacy.
This strategy may find imitators. Ben Ali’s son-in-law, Sakhr el-Materi, was last year elected to the central committee of the ruling Rassemblement Constitutionnel Démocratique party. In Algeria, Bouteflika’s brother, Said, has been linked to a “grassroots” movement that – it is rumored – could eventually serve as a basis for his succession bid. But these two cases are at much earlier stages, and their prospects for success more uncertain.
In Libya, Saif al-Islam has sought to distinguish himself as an agent of democratic change by setting up “non-governmental” organizations, establishing “independent” media outlets, and even sponsoring his own private drafting committee for a new constitution. But he has encountered stubborn resistance from key elite groups, who regard his agenda as a threat to their vested interests.
The legitimacy question is particularly problematic if the ruler’s biography or charisma is closely tied to the legitimacy of the regime. In Libya, the regime’s founding myth is inextricably linked to Qaddafi’s 1969 coup and his eclectic political theories. His departure would expose the anachronistic nature of the state’s ideological foundation; family ties will do nothing to protect his successor from the resulting shock to the system.
The Algerian situation is similar. The regime’s legitimacy is based on the war of independence, with all presidents to date having played important roles in it. But Bouteflika’s most likely successors, including his brother, almost certainly will not have this tie. As in Egypt, public opposition to a succession seen to threaten the republican order could sharpen the army’s understanding of itself as guardian of the state, prompting it to intervene. This is much more likely in Algeria than in Egypt.
Another public-relations problem concerns business interests. In Egypt, Gamal Mubarak will have to counter the widespread perception that his interests are aligned with close allies among the business elite, notably steel tycoon Ahmed el-Ezz. Gamal could seek to dispel this perception by publicly making examples of regime cronies involved in excesses. While business interests are not as openly discussed in Tunisia, they are no less unpopular. Ben Ali’s successor could raise his profile by clamping down on cronyism.
The four rulers have deliberately played their succession cards close to their chests. Keeping everyone in suspense helps prevent the emergence of organized opposition to a dynastic succession. Moreover, they may worry that heirs apparent will seek to force them out of office prematurely.
Thus, Ben Ali has demoted prominent politicians back when they attained sufficient influence to be considered potential successors. He is apparently concerned that one of them could imitate a coup like the one he led in 1987 that toppled Habib Bourguiba. (He has since changed the constitution to prevent a repeat).
In Libya, the fortunes of Saif al-Islam and Muatasim have waxed and waned as Qaddafi enforces his authority to prevent the emergence of a challenger. While few obstacles remain in Gamal’s path to power in Egypt, in Algeria, meanwhile, a bid to install Said would likely collapse against resistance from powerful regime interests.