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Posted on on July 13th, 2009
by Pincas Jawetz (

Succession Issues Face Key U.S. Middle East Allies.
Analysis by Helena Cobban

WASHINGTON, Jul 12 (IPS) – Two key U.S. allies in the Arab world, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are now both facing succession crises that may absorb, or even split, their political elites. This promises a period of political unpredictability ahead in both countries.

It may well also complicate Pres. Barack Obama’s Israeli-Arab peace diplomacy, which is based centrally on the role these two large allies – and one smaller one, Jordan – can play in solving inter-Arab problems, reassuring Israelis, and helping to tempt everyone to the peace table.

Since January, the head of Egypt’s military intelligence, Lieut.-Gen. Omar Suleiman, has been in charge of three key Middle East mediations. He has been mediating between Israel and the Palestinian movement Hamas over both strengthening the Gaza ceasefire and winning a prisoner exchange between them. He’s also been mediating a chronically elusive reconciliation between Hamas and the other big Palestinian movement, Fatah.

Meanwhile, Washington is hoping this year, as always, that Saudi Arabia can buttress U.S. diplomacy with cash and some political leadership. Saudi Arabia has now won the support of all the relevant Arab leaderships, including Hamas’s political bureau, for a key 2002 peace initiative that promises Israel normal political and economic ties in return for a full Israeli withdrawal from lands occupied in 1967 and a fair resolution of Palestinian refugee claims.

The Saudi king, Abdullah ibn Abdul-Aziz, will be 85 this August. His longstanding crown prince (and half-brother) Sultan ibn Abdul-Aziz, is 83, and was recently hospitalised for several weeks with suspected cancer.

The big question regarding the Saudi succession hangs over whether, and how, the kingship will ever be transferred from the numerous ageing brothers and half-brothers who stand in line after Crown Prince Sultan, to the “next generation” of princes – some of the more senior of whom are already nearing 70 years old.

Earlier this year, King Abdullah named his 76-year-old half-brother Naif ibn Abdul-Aziz as “second deputy prime minister”, a position that places him a likely – but not certain -second in line to throne after Sultan.

When King Abdul-Aziz ibn Saud, the founder of the modern Saudi state, died in 1953, he left some 37 sons from his 22 wives. Various of these sons have ruled the kingdom in turn since then.

Many of Abdul-Aziz’s sons had a dozen or more sons of their own. Saudi Arabia has no system of “primogeniture” (first-son succession.) Thus, there are hundreds of possible eventual claimants to the throne. Indeed, the youngest of Abdul-Aziz’s sons, Prince Muqrin, is, at 64, some years younger than several of the next-generation princes who now hope to become king.

There have been no reports that any possible successor monarchs might want to change a foreign policy stance that, since the 1930s, has aligned Saudi Arabia very closely with Washington. But among the country’s political elite, including its princes, there are many differing views on domestic affairs, including oil policies, economic policies, the role of the country’s powerful religious institutions, and the role of women.

These differences are inevitably hard fought over at times of succession, and could at the least distract Riyadh from playing the role in regional diplomacy that Obama wants it to play. (At worst, the kingdom could see a struggle between its many power centres that is even deeper and more debilitating than the one now rocking nearby Iran.)

In Egypt, meanwhile, there have been many recent reports that the country’s 81-year-old president, Hosni Mubarak, is ailing and finally eager to quit. Some reports say he has already told the Saudi monarch he may not even finish serving his current six-year term in office, which ends in 2011.

Mubarak has led Egypt’s 76 million people since 1981. Throughout those years he has always refused to name a vice-president.

Now, one of the two main contenders to succeed him is his 45-year-old second son, Gamal, who has held an important post in the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) since 2002.

(It is not wholly strange that, even in a republic, a son might succeed his father as president. It has happened in North Korea, Syria, several African countries and even -with an eight-year interlude – when George W. Bush became president of the United States.)

Behind the scenes in Egypt, though, the military is still almost the same big force in the political system – and economy – that it has been since 1952. There is a considerable question whether the shadowy power centres in the Egyptian military will support Gamal Mubarak, an investment banker who has no record of service in the military.

The leading military man mentioned for possible next president is none other than Omar Suleiman, the intelligence chief who has been conducting so much of Mubarak’s sensitive Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy. (It also remains possible that the military might throw its weight behind another “insider” candidate, not Suleiman.)

The fact that Suleiman has been tasked by Pres. Mubarak with diplomatic jobs that are so important to the broader progress of Washington’s regional peace diplomacy means this diplomacy may well become entangled in any succession struggle that occurs in Cairo.

For example, if – as many well-placed Egyptians claim – Pres. Mubarak strongly wants his son to follow him in office, he may be less than eager to see Suleiman gain public kudos as a successful negotiator. There has been some questioning whether Mubarak may have set Suleiman up for failure by giving him overly strict parameters for his diplomatic chores.

Certainly, though Suleiman has been heading all three of these building-brick negotiations since late January, he has not succeeded in any of them yet.

Egypt’s succession struggle is connected to the broader diplomacy in another way, too. Hamas has nearly always been closely aligned with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (MB), a broad, nonviolent Islamist movement that is the main challenger to Mubarak’s NDP.

Mubarak has never allowed the MB to participate freely in Egypt’s regime-dominated politics, though during a brief and very partial democratic opening in 2005, its candidates won 88 of the 444 elected seats in the Egyptian parliament.

If Suleiman succeeds in one or more of his diplomatic tasks, then Hamas would immediately gain much more international legitimacy as a valid participant in the broader peacemaking. Many NDP insiders fear that could reflect well on the MB, too.

Ominously enough, the most recent round of reports about Mubarak’s failing health has been accompanied by new arrest campaigns against MB leaders and activists. It is possible that Egypt might see additional political heat during the coming summer months. Jordan is smaller and weaker than Egypt and Saudi Arabia. There at least, the ruling monarch, Abdullah II, has laid to rest – for now – the questions that once swirled around his succession. On Jul. 2 he appointed his son Prince Hussein as crown prince.

Prince Hussein is only 15 years old. But since the king is only 47, there is a good chance the crown prince will not be taking over any time soon. (Or perhaps, ever. Back in 1999 when Jordan’s King Hussein died of cancer, in his very last days he revoked the appointment that his brother, Hassan, had held as crown prince since 1965; and he named Abdullah II his successor, instead.)

But in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, political succession issues are now taking centre stage.

*Helena Cobban is a veteran Middle East analyst and author. She blogs at



The San Francisco Sentinel, 12 July 2009

North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong Il, is suffering from cancer of the pancreas and is in danger of dying of the disease, South Korean television reported this morning, the latest and most specific in a series of reports on the dictator’s health.

The information, which was attributed by Yonhap Television News to unidentified Chinese and South Korean intelligence sources, is consistent with a report in a Japanese newspaper over the weekend that Mr Kim has a “serious pancreatic disorder”, and with television images from North Korea last week, in which he appeared a frail-looking Kim Jong Il, emaciated and slow on his feet.

Mr Kim disappeared from public view for three months last year after what intelligence agencies assume was a stroke last August. Since then, judging from television footage of him, his health has declined.

The South Korean intelligence agency has reported signs that Mr Kim is paving the way for his youngest son, Kim Jong Un to succeed him; unconfirmed reports have even had the 25-year old visiting Beijing to get to know officials of the closest thing North Korea has to an ally – China.

All year, Pyongyang has staged a series of verbal and physical provocations, including the launch of an intercontinental rocket and an underground nuclear test, which suggest that it has abandoned expectations of negotiation with the international community in favour of whipping up nationalist fervour at home.

Thee are no obvious signs are that Kim Jong Il is in anything less than complete control, but close examination of recent internal developments leads many Pyongyang-watchers to the conclusion that he is leaning towards military hardliners, and away from the more reform-oriented advisers whom he favoured in the middle of the present decade.


For Immediate Release from ETE ON THE UN:
July 12, 2009, by Anne Bayefsky

This article, by Anne Bayefsky, originally appeared in Forbes.
 info at

President Obama in Ghana: What He Refused To Say in Cairo.
Stroking Muslim and Arab nations has become the hallmark of Obama’s foreign policy.

Speaking in Ghana on Saturday President Obama lectured Africans on local repression, corruption, brutality, good governance and accountability. The startling contrast to his June speech in Cairo was revealing. Stroking Muslim and Arab nations has become the hallmark of Obama’s foreign policy.

In Egypt, he chose not to utter the words “terrorism” or “genocide.” In Egypt, there was nothing “brutal” he could conjure up, no “corruption” and no “repression”.

In Ghana, with a 70% Christian population, he mentioned “good governance” seven times and added direct calls upon his audience to “make change from the bottom up.” He praised “people taking control of their destiny” and pressed “young people” to “hold your leaders accountable.”

He made no such calls for action by the people of Arab states–despite the fact that not a single Arab country is “free,” according to the latest Freedom House global survey.

Before the Muslim world Obama donned the role of apologist-in-chief. Over and over again his examples of shortfalls in the protection of rights and freedoms were American: the “prison at Guantanamo Bay,” “rules on charitable giving [that] have made it harder for Muslims to fulfill their religious obligation,” impediments to the “choice” of Muslim women to shroud their bodies.

Christian Africa was to be treated to no such self-flagellation. In a rare tongue-lashing for Africans from any American president, he chastised: “It’s easy to point fingers and to pin the blame of these problems on others. Yes, a colonial map that made little sense helped to breed conflict … But the West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy … or wars in which children are enlisted as combatants … tribalism and patronage and nepotism … and … corruption.”

He might equally have said to the Arab and Muslim world: “It’s easy to scapegoat Israel and blame your problems on the presence of Jews–albeit on a fraction of 1% of the territory inhabited by the Arab world–but Israel is not responsible for poverty, illiteracy, torture, trafficking, slavery and oppression rampant across your countries.” But he did not.

In Ghana he pointed to specific heroes that had exposed human rights abuse, singling out by name a courageous investigative reporter. In Egypt, though journalists and bloggers are routinely threatened, jailed and worse, no such brave soul came to mind.

In a Christian African nation he said, “If we are honest, for far too many Africans, conflict is a part of life, as constant as the sun. There are wars over land and wars over resources. And it is still far too easy for those without conscience to manipulate whole communities into fighting among faiths and tribes.”

To the Arab and Muslim world he could have said: “Since the day of Israel’s birth Arab and Muslim countries have made conflict with Israel a part of life, warring over land and manipulating whole communities into fighting in the name of Islam to render the area Judenrein.”

Instead, he turned on the only democracy in the Middle East and said the presence of Jews on Arab-claimed territory–settlements–is an affront to be “stopped.” It didn’t matter that agreements require ultimate ownership of this territory to be determined by negotiation or that apartheid Palestine is hardly a worthy pursuit.

From Ghana he chided Africans: “No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy, that is tyranny, even if occasionally you sprinkle an election in there. And now is the time for that style of governance to end.”

For an Arab and Muslim audience he cooed: “America will defend itself, respectful of the sovereignty of nations and the rule of law. And we will do so in partnership with Muslim communities, which are also threatened.”

Ghanaians will likely turn the other cheek, secure enough to take it and even be grateful for the spotlight. But Obama’s double-standard is not a victimless crime. The disparity between the scolding he gave in Ghana and the love-in he held in Cairo illuminates an incoherent and dangerous agenda.

In his lofty, but empty, rhetoric in Ghana, Obama promised “we must stand up to inhumanity in our midst,” pledged “a commitment … to sanction and stop” warmongers and embraced the Zimbabwe non-governmental organization that “braved brutal repression to stand up for the principle that a person’s vote is their sacred right.”

These are devastating words for Iranians struggling valiantly to keep the hope of democracy alive but forced to bear witness to the contradiction. Betrayed, they have watched the Obama administration pledge to move forward on negotiations with illegally ensconced Iranian thugs–at the very same time their victims are being rounded up, tortured and readied for show-trials in advance of certain execution.

On Friday, Obama, and the rest of the G-8 with his blessing, announced that thinking about more sanctions on Iran can wait until September. And then we can expect yet another round of Security Council dickering over minimalist responses to more Iranian stalling tactics–until an Iranian nuclear weapon is inevitable. Though it is 2,202 days since the U.N.’s atomic energy agency first declared that Iran was violating the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, Obama pretends legitimizing those same nuclear-proliferating fascists makes it more likely the clock will stop ticking.

Iranians standing up for their allegedly “sacred rights” know Obama has it exactly backwards. Speechifying about “our interconnected world” and “common interests” in Ghana was cold comfort to the voices of Muslim dissidents and Jewish victims deserted in the Obama wilderness.

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