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The Rising Sons of North Africa

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.