Page last updated at 02:23 GMT, Friday, 20 November 2009

North Africa's leaders keep it in the family

By Aidan Lewis
BBC News

Archive photo of a banner in Tripoli showing Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi (r) and his son Saif al-Islam (l), October 2008
Saif al-Islam Gaddafi (l) is touted as a possible successor to his father (r)

In Libya and Egypt, it's a son. In Algeria it's a brother. In Tunisia it's a son-in-law - or even his mother, the president's wife.

Across Africa's northern rim, the belief is growing that these favoured relatives of long-serving leaders are being positioned for succession.

With Morocco already a monarchy, the emergence of these heirs-apparent has led to the prospect of dynastic rule from the Red Sea to the Atlantic.

In some countries, family succession might be hotly contested, or the potential heirs have denied any interest in inheriting power.

But observers say the fact that a clean sweep of dynasties is even considered possible reflects a growing authoritarianism in the region, and shows that dwindling hopes of political reform could be all but extinguished.

'No longer taboo'

The trend towards succession has spread as clans have cemented their power, and opposition - both domestic and international - has receded, says Amel Boubekeur, an associate scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center.

"Ten years ago it would have been a huge taboo, now it seems to be something that leaders and ruling elites are comfortable to present as the only option," she says.

Former Egyptian presidential candidate Ayman Nour in Cairo, 14 October 2009
Egyptian succession opponents have a crossed-out crown as their symbol

Although no leaders' relatives have been officially anointed to take over, developments in recent weeks have focused attention on the issue of succession.

In Libya, one of Muammar Gaddafi's sons, 37-year-old Saif al-Islam, became the second most powerful figure in the country in October when he was named co-ordinator of a grouping of tribal, political and business leaders.

In Tunisia, as President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali cruised to a fifth five-year term in office last month, doubts over the 73-year-old's health led to suggestions that it may be his last. His son-in-law, Sakhr el-Materi, won a seat in parliament and was touted as a possible successor.

And in Egypt, where 81-year-old President Hosni Mubarak has long been thought to be easing his youngest son, Gamal, into place behind him, groups from across the political spectrum have launched a campaign to oppose any such handover.

Weak opposition

Even Algeria, which in contrast to its neighbours has a long tradition of resisting attempts to personalise power, could be following the same path.

This summer saw the launch of a movement called Free Generation, which many saw as a project to provide a political base for President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's brother, Said, who is in his early 50s.

Egypt: Gamal Mubarak, former investment banker
Libya: Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, envoy and chair of Gaddafi Foundation
Tunisia: Sakhr el-Materi, businessman and politician
Algeria: Said Bouteflika, presidential aide

With just a decade in the job, Mr Bouteflika, 72, is still a relative novice among regional leaders - Mr Ben Ali has been in power since 1987, Mr Mubarak since 1981 and Mr Gaddafi since 1969.

But last year the Algerian leader pushed a constitutional amendment through parliament that abolished a presidential term limit, prompting critics to complain that he intends to rule for life.

As in other states, those critics gained little foothold, operating in a context where opposition parties are weak, civil society hamstrung, and political apathy prevails.

Other similarities echo through the region.

Ruling regimes dress up changes in democratic language, but the only groups that are thought to be capable of mobilising mass opposition are Islamist movements that tend to be banned.

Meanwhile, populist subsidies are used to prevent bread riots and lucrative business opportunities are offered to potential rivals within the elite - including the military men who have tended to pull the strings at crucial moments.

Hopes 'abandoned'

The new model is a kind of "dynastic republicanism", says George Joffe, a North Africa expert at Cambridge University.

"You carve out a new kind of autocratic bureaucracy in which there is an implicit bargain," he says.

"People abandon the right for participation in return for economic benefit."

Archive photo of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and his brother Said, May 2007
Said Bouteflika (right) has served as an aide to his brother Abdelaziz (left)

On an international level, the status quo in Europe's "southern neighbourhood" reflects the failure of efforts by the US and EU to encourage political reform after the end of the Cold War, Mr Joffe says.

"In a way, we're now presented with a situation whereby all the nice aspirations of the 1990s - in so far as they have any relevance - have been abandoned," he says.

In some cases, Western reformists may have been seduced by a younger generation of future leaders who have presented themselves as modern and moderate, following the example of Morocco's King Mohammed VI, who replaced his repressive father Hassan II, in 1999.

"They are trying to play the populist card, saying that we are not like our predecessors - we are young, we are going to change things," says Ms Boubekeur.

"But on the ground, when you try to assess what their reforms are or what they are trying to prepare in terms of renewal, you can see that they are not going to change the system because they are benefiting from it."

'Doors closing'

Ruling families and their wider networks have extended their economic reach to varying degrees.

The most notorious case is perhaps Tunisia, where the family of the president's wife, Leila Trabelsi, wields huge economic power.

Catherine Graciet, who recently co-authored a book that explores the business dealings of the ruler's wife and her clan, claims that Ms Trabelsi is already managing much behind the scenes for her ailing husband.

Sakhr el-Materi in Tunis, October 2009
Sakhr el-Materi won a parliamentary seat in October elections

But it is her son-in-law, Mr Materi, who may be a more likely eventual ruler, and who has been building a burgeoning business empire that includes an Islamic radio station and a bank.

"We are certainly on a family path" to succession, says Ms Graciet, whose book, La Regente de Carthage (The Regent of Carthage), is banned in Tunisia.

"It's becoming less and less shocking - in any case the US and the EU are doing nothing to react."

Analysts say external pressure is missing because, as Ms Boubekeur puts it, the US and the EU are "still blinded by their obsessive quest for stability".

Keen to allay fears over immigration and Islamist extremism, and to secure supplies of oil and gas and other business deals, "they prefer to work with people they already know", she says.

But she also warns that it might be harder to negotiate with a younger generation who are "just out to protect themselves", and do not have the long political experience of their parents.

Moreover, with rumours of ill-health swirling around the current, ageing leaders of Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria, time could be running out.

"They are closing all doors and spaces for peaceful contestation - that's one of the very worrying consequences of this succession scenario," Ms Boubekeur says.

"More and more, I can't see any other forms of rupture that are not conducted through violence."

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