In the Middle East, the sons also rise

Even in what are supposed to be republics, ageing Arab leaders plan Jordanian-style dynastic success

The new king, Abdullah II, stood on the steps of the Raghadan Palace greeting Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, secure in the knowledge that the millions of Jordanians who were there to mourn King Hussein would accept him because his father had chosen him. The funeral was choreographed as much to show Jordan's seamless line of succession as to honour the 47-year reign of a monarch who was not always so lauded by the west.

Power had changed hands without the need for any democratic niceties. Abdullah's main qualification for the job is that as a major-general he will have the backing of the army - a prerequisite for any ruler in the Arab world. In a region where nations have been in a constant state of war for nearly 50 years, the armed forces have a stranglehold. Liberal democracy, to which even sub-Saharan African states aspire from time to time, has less than a toehold in most of the Arab world. If you think you are in a state of total war, as the Arabs think they are, you don't hold elections, as the British and Americans also refrained from doing in the early 1940s. True, Lebanon is an exception, but only because, after years of civil war and terrorism, it has nothing to lose from a fling with democracy. The Palestinian areas of Israel, true also, have an elected parliament, but Yasser Arafat makes all the important decisions without any reference to it.

Every Arab state knows what happens when you hold elections: the people vote for Islamic fundamentalist parties, as they did in Algeria. Such parties pose what ruling elites consider an unacceptable risk to national stability. They promise to redistribute wealth, enfranchise the poor and revive the equality that prevailed in the time of the Prophet. They would nationalise banks, commerce and industry and shatter the national economy within a matter of months. They would impose compulsory prayer, ban satellite television and order men to wear beards and women the veil, thus igniting social conflicts.

So a country of Bedouin tribes, where women are required to cover up and alcohol and gambling are associated with Satan, has another king with a playboy past, speaking in heavily accented British Arabic. Abdullah and his younger Hashemite siblings may claim descent from the family of the Prophet, but he and his younger brothers have all been educated in the secular west.

And throughout the Arab world a new generation is being groomed by its parents to take the reins of power. For the most part they are thirtysomething sybarites, united in their passion for fast cars, women, casinos and alcohol.

The next handover is expected in the Syrian capital, Damascus, where the 70-year-old President Hafez Assad is educating his 35-year-old son, Bashar, in the techniques of statecraft. This soft-spoken, British-trained ophthalmologist has emerged as his father's deputy and represents him at state functions at home and abroad. The diabetic Assad senior, who has been in power for 30 years, had planned to nominate his elder son Bassel as his successor, but the future president was killed in 1994 when he drove his Mercedes 600 into a road barrier in dense fog just outside Damascus airport.

Like Hussein - who ruled out his brother Hassan as his heir in his dying days - Assad has also been at loggerheads with a younger brother. Before he incurred his brother's wrath, the ambitious Rifaat was Syria's vice-president and revelled in all the privileges that went with the job, including a luxurious apartment in Paris where he dined off gold plate.

Monarchies like Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Morocco can claim that dynastic succession is part of local culture and tradition. But presidents of the so-called socialist republics such as Syria, Iraq and Libya believe they also have God's blessing to name their sons as their successors. The presidents of these three countries each came to power in army-led coups and have since legitimised their rule by staging "referendums" that invariably give them 99.9 per cent public approval. Their courtiers have convinced them that the people will support any decision they make.

In Iraq, Saddam Hussein's notorious son, the oafish Uday, behaves as if Iraq belongs to him. Part of the country's oil revenues is paid into his private bank accounts and he has enriched himself further by issuing business licences in exchange for bribes.

Libya's Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who has also been in power for nearly three decades, believes his son, Seif al-Islam, is the Libyan best qualified to replace him. The 27 year old was dispatched to Amman by his father to congratulate Abdullah on behalf of the Libyan people.

Mercifully for the Palestinians - who claim to be the best educated and most progressive of all Arabs - Yasser and Suha Arafat have been blessed with a daughter, Zahwa. In male-dominated Palestinian society she will have to fight twice as hard as any boy to win a place in the dynastic stakes and she is in any case too young to replace her ailing father.

The trouble is that most of the next generation of rulers will probably lack the political skills of their fathers and so be unable to deal with the resentments that are building up throughout the Arab world.

From Libya and Morocco in the west all the way to the Gulf in the east, ruling families have reason to be afraid of the rising power of political Islam. The firebrands in Egypt who assassinate western tourists, the Algerian fundamentalists who torture and kill their own people, the Syrian Muslim Brothers who have vowed to topple the atheist Ba'ath regime and even the observant Muslims of Saudi Arabia are waiting in the wings for the right opportunity that will propel them into the palaces.

None of the ruling regimes' chosen sons can be described as devout Muslims and the profound sense of alienation is evident even in countries like Libya and Iraq, where Seif al-Islam and Uday have been largely tutored at home, leading sequestered lives and mixing only with their fathers' approved circle of cronies.

The mosque thus becomes an alternative source of authority and assistance for impoverished families who find it difficult to identify with the chinless generation of future rulers. But the radical preachers are no more interested in representative government, and rather more committed to imposing their own way of life on people, than the incumbent rulers. Deciding between a rock and a hard place is not much of a choice for the many who live beyond the palace walls.

This article first appeared in the 12 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kick out the image-makers

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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