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Like father, like son: Second generation Arab leaders bare teeth and play games with reform

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Any lingering hope that the gradual passing on of power from father to son over the last two decades in much of the Middle East and North Africa would prompt change has been buried in blood on the streets of Syrian towns and cities. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad unleashed his security forces in an unsuccessful bid to crush massive anti-government demonstrations demanding an end to his family’s 41-year old rule that left hundreds of anti-regime demonstrators dead.

A British-educated ophthalmologist, Mr. Assad already dampened hopes of change when he quickly abandoned his initial timid attempts at political liberalization after succeeding in 2000 his father Hafez al-Assad, who had ruled Syria with an iron hand for 29 years until his death. With the latest reported atrocities in Deraa, Mr. Assad may well be on his way to exceed the excesses of his father.

At the same time, hopes that the accession to the throne of Western educated Kings Abdullah II of Jordan and Mohammed VI of Morocco, who like Mr. Assad succeeded their fathers at about the same time, would herald change were quickly dashed as the new generation of rulers tinkered with social and economic reform but did little to reduce their grip on power.

If anything, they tightened their grip as corruption among their closest associates flourished. Protesters in all three countries have targeted family and associates of the rulers whom they see as symbols of their countries’ nepotism and corruption.

In Syria, the targets are Mr. Assad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, who has built an economic empire over the past decade, as well as the president’s brother, Maher al-Assad, commander of the Syrian army’s elite fourth tank brigade and of the 10,000-man strong Shabiba militia, and the president’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, deputy chief of staff and head of Syrian military intelligence. Maher al-Assad and General Shawkat’s forces are widely seen as responsible for the brutal crackdown on protesters.

They are believed to be acting in accordance with decisions taken at a late March Assad family council in which hardliners won the day.

In Morocco, demonstrators are targeting Mounir Majidi, the king’s private secretary, and his colleague, Fouad Ali El Himma, whose pictures figure prominently in protests. In Jordan, King Abdullah’s wife, Palestinian-born Queen Rania, bears the brunt of popular ire.

In a rare attack on the Jordanian royal family, scores of prominent East Bank Jordanian tribal leaders released in February a scathing statement denouncing Queen Rania of corruption. It charged that Queen Rania, “her sycophants and the power centers that surround her” were dividing Jordanians and “stealing from the country and the people,” and warned King Abdullah that if he failed to tackle corruption and introduce reform “similar events to those in Tunisia and Egypt and other Arab countries will occur.”

King Mohammed’s efforts to fight corruption have so far resonated little with the monarch’s critics. Fevrier 20, a Facebook-centered youth movement, has called for a nationwide demonstration against corruption on Sunday despite a six-month old government plan to eradicate corruption within two years that includes a recent law to protect whistle-blowers. “We call to demonstrate peacefully in all towns to end corruption and injustice and for real democracy in our country,” a video on the movement’s Facebook page said.

The Moroccan protests, however, have so far had little, if any, impact on the business dealings of the royal family. SNI, the holding company controlled by the royals that has come under greater public scrutiny as a result of the calls for the king to limit his political and business clout, said this week that it was pushing ahead with planned sales of stakes in its assets to strategic partners despite the protests.

King Mohammed’s appointment of a council that would propose changes to the constitution, including the election rather than royal appointment of a prime minister and the shifting of power from the capital Rabat to the regions, has so far also failed to inspire confidence.

“Just look at who's in the reform commission, and you'll soon see how serious the whole operation is–there’s no one with a record of democracy. The president of the commission, Abdeltif Menouni, was himself head of the constitutional council–the body which was responsible for maintaining the very constitution which is now apparently to be reformed. The guardian of the temple is supposed to destroy the temple,” said Aboubakr Jamai, an independent journalist and winner of the 2010 Gebran Tueni Award of the World Association of Newspapers in a recent interview with Qantara.

Ironically, King Abdullah of Jordan was offered a rare reprieve on Friday, the first Friday since early January to have passed without anti-government protests. Organizers of the protests, including the country’s Muslim Brotherhood, cancelled Friday’s protest to distance themselves from the country’s Salafis, proponents of the immediate introduction of Sharia law in Jordan, who have been staging demonstrations of their own and said they would join last Friday’s protests.

“We did not want to give the government and the regime a chance to accuse the opposition of being in cahoots with the Salafis,” The New York Times quoted Zaki Saad, head of the political bureau of the Muslim Brotherhood, as saying. Salafis armed with knives and rocks clashed with police on April 15, wounding more than 80 police officers. “As a result of what took place last week, the political parties and the national parties who are calling for reform decided to cancel all their demonstrations until May,” Mr. Saad said.

By doing so, Jordan’s main opposition groups have put the ball squarely in King Abdullah’s court.

“The emergence of extremist groups such as the Salafists in Jordan is always a reflection of the anger and disappointment by the people at large with some choosing to express this by joining such groups. I always hold the government responsible for the emergence of such groups because of its policies of repression, discrimination and corruption that make people really angry,” said Jordanian political analyst Labib Kamhawi.

Mr. Kamhawi said it was now up to the government to introduce real reform if it wishes to prevent escalation.

“If it chooses not to realize these, the government itself will be inviting violence and more extremism in the demands of the people,” he said.

Until such a time when meaningful change is implemented, change that indicates that rulers truly listen to their constituents, it would be difficult to conclude anything other than, “Like father, like son.”

But the way the political drama is playing in the Arab world, it may well be that even the deceased fathers might turn in their graves.

(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: [email protected])