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The Son Also Rises

Next week, according to North Korea-watchers, the Korean Workers' Party (i.e. the Communists) will hold an assembly in Pyongyang to anoint Kim Jong-un, the youngest son of Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, as the successor to his father and grandfather. There is already a song, "Footsteps", that praises the young man's qualities as a leader, and lapel badges with his image are already being churned out so that every North Korean citizen can wear one.

Egypt is not quite so weird, in the sense that the three generals who have ruled the country for the past 54 years were not actually blood relations, but it is getting weirder. It is universally believed that President Hosni Mubarak, now 82, is grooming his 46-year-old son Gamal as his successor. There were public protests about that in Cairo and Alexandria last week, though the police soon broke them up with the usual arrests and violence.

But where does this all come from? How can anybody believe that none of the 85 million Egyptians is better suited to be president than the son of the present incumbent, or that the "Young General", Kim Jong-un, is the only one of North Korea's 24 million people who is qualified to rule the country?

In fact, nobody does believe it, and neither of these men has a powerful personal following of his own. Moreover, these countries are republics, not monarchies. They may be dictatorial, repressive republics, but the whole notion of dynasties is alien to republics of any sort. So how can this sort of thing happen?

In monarchies, the son is SUPPOSED to inherit power from his father. In modern monarchies, they don't usually get much power anyway, since the job is largely ceremonial, but at least there is a theoretical basis for passing power down in this way. In a republic, on the other hand, there is just no room for the hereditary principle in politics.

Power does pass down within families in democratic republics from time to time, as with the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty in India and the Bush family in the United States, but only if the would-be successor can win a real election. What's happening in authoritarian republics like Egypt and North Korea is quite different - and neither the father nor the son may be the prime mover behind the choice of the latter as successor.

The first modern case of an inherited dictatorship was Bashar al-Assad, who succeeded his father Hafez as the president of Syria in 2000. The way he got chosen is quite instructive.

Hafez al-Assad was a former air force general who had ruled Syria with an iron fist for thirty years. He did want to keep power within the family, but it was his older son Basil whom he was grooming to succeed him. However, Basil died in a car accident in 1994, and Bashar (who was studying ophthalmology in London at the time) was ordered back to Syria by his father and put into an intensive program of military and political training.

When his father died six years later, Bashar, at the age of 35, was swiftly chosen to succeed him - but how did that happen? Hafiz al-Assad had wanted it to happen, but he was now dead. Why did all the other major players in the Syrian regime, a notoriously ambitious and ruthless group of men, agree to make this inexperienced nobody their leader?

Because they wanted to preserve their own privileges and power, and that could best be guaranteed by letting the old dictator's son take power. In a one-party regime, there are no real rules for the succession, and the risk that a struggle between rivals for the leadership will destroy the unity of the party and bring the whole regime down is ever-present.

Unless the son of the late leader is a murderous megalomaniac, he is the safest choice no matter how poor his qualifications are for the job. He can lead in name while the real decisions are made elsewhere, and all the powerful people within the regime get to keep their accustomed places at the trough.

That is the logic that brought Bashar al-Assad to power in Syria ten years ago, and it is what creates support within the North Korean and Egyptian regimes today for the elevation of the current dictators' sons to supreme power after their fathers die. It really doesn't matter who is up on the reviewing stand taking the salute, as long as the thousand most powerful people in the regime keep their jobs.

So Kim Jong-un (now 27 years old) will be acclaimed as the next leader of North Korea by the Party congress - and will probably take up the job quite soon, since his father had a stroke two years ago and is now very frail. Gamal Mubarak will run for president in next year's "election" in Egypt, and will win because the regime always fixes the elections. But despite the extraordinary durability of these regimes, they are not indestructible.

If you can credibly say about some situation that "it cannot go on like this forever," then the only logical alternative is that it will eventually stop. Just not right now.

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