Middle East — 29 August 2006

Libya has been ruled by Colonel Gaddafi and his motley crew for 37 years and his tenure has been characterised by brutally of the highest degree. Political parties and dissent are banned, with execution facing whosoever dares to speak out against the oppression and injustice enacted by the Gaddafi regime. Over the last couple of years, there has been a change in Libyan politics, with the ascendancy of Gaddafi’s son, Seif al Islam, this has raised the discussion of political succession in Libya, similar to the process in Syria; with Bashar al Assad inheriting the reigns of power from his father, Hazef al Assad in 2000. Seif al Islam recently made bold comments, in which he admitted corruption and the abuses inflicted by the Libyan regime over the last 37 years. Therefore in some quarters, there is a belief that the succession of Seif al Islam would be a good thing and would lead to an improvement in the social, economic and political landscape of Libya. This belief seems to be rather naïve, and fails to take into consideration the impact of similar succession processes in the Middle East.

In Egypt, Gamal Mubarak, is being groomed to succeed his father, a process which began in 1996. His rise to power has been astonishing, with Gamal effectively running the county and out powering the Prime Minister Dr Ahmad Nazif. Gamal has made promises of economic and political reform but little political reform has been seen to date, which can be seen from the fact that the situation in Egypt has deteriorated excessively since the elections in 2005, despite Gamal being in a position of power and influence. Like wise in Syria, Bashar al Assad, also made such promises of reform leading up to his succession and in its aftermath, he allowed political space, the opening of discussion forums and the freeing of political prisoners. Yet this ‘Damascus Spring’ only lasted a short period of time. Once the Bashar regime had consolidated itself, one saw the rolling back of the limited changes that were introduced. Today in Syria, the situation is no better to that under Hazef al Assad. In fact the level of security personnel in Syrian society has increased as Bashad al Assad is no doubt a weaker leader compared to his father, requiring higher levels of oppression to maintain control over society. In Jordan, the rise of King Abdullah in 1999, the darling of the West, was presented in a positive manner for the future of Jordan, however again this optimism has been short lived. King Abdullah kept parliament suspended till 2003 and during this time introduced over 100 laws, which stifled debate and discussion in society. Professional syndicates have been paralysed and criticism of ‘friendly allies’ has been made an offence. The recent law to prevent the issuing of religious decrees except from the official religious representative is further evidence of the political control, which has come to manifest Jordan.

Taking the above into consideration, there is a process of change in the Middle East. Dictators are getting old and are thinking of how to maintain power in the family. As a result sons are being pushed forward and are being presented in a different light to distinguish them from the corrupt political elite which exists. This is important in order to win public support and confidence. Therefore Seif al Islam is another face in a long line of faces which are appearing on the scene and one is unlikely to see drastic political changes in Libya and the cases of Egypt, Syria and Jordan should be clear examples of how a change in faces has not brought about economic and political change. The underlying factors still seem to go unnoticed such as the corruption in the economic and political elite, the role of external actors in political affairs and the suitability of existing systems to deal with the problems being faced by the populace. This is the real debate and is something that needs to be tackled if real and not cosmetic change is to occur in Libya and the wider Middle East.

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