The Sons of the Fathers

By PARAG KHANNA

What if Qaddafi proclaimed that President Bush is right? The Middle East needs more democracy. And Libya should work with Europe and America to promote human rights. Or what if Mubarak, in a secret visit to the White House, defended crackdowns on Egypt’s dissidents to a crowd that included George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, and Stephen Hadley? Qaddafi and Mubarak did just that -- that is, Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi and Gamal Mubarak, the sons groomed to follow in their fathers’ footsteps. Qaddafi, Mubarak -- and Assad, Mohammed, and Abdullah -- are all names that won’t disappear from the headlines for at least another 20 to 30 years, even after the men we associate with them fade from power. The sons of the rulers that have been either American puppets or the bane of American foreign policy for a generation or longer are coming of age -- as new and aspiring leaders. And their lives may be a litmus test for the future of Arab democracy. So who are they? The caricatures are well known: Jet-setting playboys with thuggish tendencies and Western diplomas. But, in truth, they tend to not be as eccentric and entertaining as their fathers. More important, they seem to be more aware of the rapid changes under way in the world. Indeed, rather than the postcolonial lineup of Arab strongmen, what is most striking about the next generation is that none of these sons even wants to wield the degree of power -- or accept the responsibility for it -- as their fathers did. Ironically, therefore, if democracy does take hold in the Middle East, it could very well be due to, rather than in spite of, the influence of these young scions. For the heir apparents, there are already a few examples of relatively young men called to walk the fine line between the complacency of family expectations and the demands of democracy. Both Morocco’s King Mohammed VI and Jordan’s King Abdullah II have sat on their respective thrones for less than a decade, and there are signs that they will maintain the traditions that underpin stability while leading their societies into modernity. Mohammed sees himself more as a manager than an arbiter. And it’s undeniable that Abdullah is pursuing social, economic, and political liberalization -- even if in a top-down fashion. In the words of one Jordanian entrepreneur, Abdullah “is even willing to invest in his own opposition.” The Libyan regime may not be going that far, but the eldest son of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi has sought to improve his country’s -- and his family’s -- image abroad. Though the detritus of his hedonistic rituals litters beaches from St. Bart’s to Bodrum, Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi has never been merely a jet-set heir to an oil-soaked dictatorship. Now 34, he learned at a young age the price of inherited prominence. When he ventured abroad to Western schools, he faced the scorn directed at his pariah father, as when Switzerland refused to extend his visa even though he was just a business school student. As his 63-year-old father’s trusted and pragmatic informal advisor, Seif has been instrumental in the campaign to abandon Libya’s nuclear program and complete the $2.7 billion payout to the families of the victims of the 1988 Pan Am bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland. As a result, Seif is perhaps already something of a roving foreign minister. With his cosmopolitan travels and Ph.D. from the London School of Economics, Seif has stepped on too many toes in Tripoli to attain an aura anything like his father’s. Even so, with Libya’s tiny, concentrated population and massive energy and tourism potential, it is not unthinkable that Seif could achieve in about three years what his father failed to do in more than three decades. Libya is a small country at the periphery of the Arab world. Egypt, on the other hand, has always considered itself the leading Arab nation, from its pan-Arab diplomatic pretensions to its dominance of the region’s television and cinema. In Egypt’s succession, therefore, the very notion of Arab democracy is at stake. Even if the ailing 78-year-old Hosni Mubarak makes it to the next presidential election in 2011, two things are certain: He will not run again, and until that time, he -- and first lady Suzanne, ever the Cleopatra -- will do whatever they can to ensure that their 42-year-old son, Gamal, succeeds him. Estranged from politics for most of his life, Gamal has quickly but subtly become the face of the political establishment. Since becoming the deputy secretary-general of the National Democratic Party (NDP) earlier this year, the former London investment banker has even become a competent arbiter among competing political factions in Egypt’s parliament and technocratic class. In addition to pushing through the appointment of a number of young, reformist cabinet ministers and helping to deregulate the economy, Gamal can allegedly claim credit for banishing his father’s classic dictator shades. But no matter what Gamal does, his very name elicits groans from many politically minded Egyptians. Far from being the divine custodian of the enfeebled masses, Mubarak’s regime is corrupt and decadent to the core. Most wouldn’t mind if it were swept down the Nile. A Cairo engineering student put it to me most bluntly, “People want a president who has used public transportation.” Thus far, Gamal’s boilerplate rhetoric has sounded more spoon-fed than inspired. But Gamal has managed to score some points with the public. In a revealing interview with establishment magazine Rose Al Youssef, he made the surprising statement that the NDP was no longer the “government party,” as in the old days, but rather would have to either win a majority or form a coalition to stay in power. Indeed, Gamal is partly responsible for the fact that, for the first time in decades, no one can confidently state who the next Egyptian president will be. As each Egyptian election becomes increasingly competitive, Gamal will have to campaign a hard extra mile to restore the credibility of the Mubarak name. If and when he runs for president, one official told me, “It won’t be a slam dunk.” That hereditary succession is even cast in doubt in several of the Middle East’s most entrenched regimes is a small triumph for the reformers of the region. Nevertheless, the men who will likely carry on these dynasties are more grounded in the realities of international politics and economics than fantastic cults of personality. Each has had his first shot at leadership handed to him -- but none will be guaranteed a second. Copyright 2006, Foreign Policy