Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Living up to a king's long legacy

Abdullah is sworn in as Jordan's king after death of Hussein, whoseinfluence reached across Mideast.

As tearful Jordanians mourn the passing of King Hussein, they are reflecting on the example that the Mideast's longest-serving monarch has set for his son Abdullah, who ascended the throne yesterday.

An icon of Middle East peace who steered his country to a treaty with Israel in 1994, Hussein was a powerful example of how, in a region of little democracy, personalities drive politics, analysts say.

About these ads

From Israel to Iran, charismatic leaders have changed the face of this region for better or worse - not because of what title they hold, but because of how they personally influence their enemies and their friends. But these characteristics also set a precedent for those who follow that is often impossible to match, analysts say.

"I was shocked by how humble, decent, and alert he was to people's problems," says Mustafa Hamarneh, director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan in Amman. "He was just as comfortable in the White House as in the bedouin tent."

For 47 years, Hussein played a key role in landmark regional events - from the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict to last year's Wye peace agreement between Palestinians and Israelis. Despite controversy along the way, Hussein became one of the most revered leaders in the Arab world.

"King Hussein's personality was crucial, and he had the populist skills" to ensure the survival of Jordan, says Mr. Hamarneh, who worked closely with the king before the Madrid peace process, which began in 1991.

The different stamp of personalities is evident across the Middle East. Israelis often blame Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's aggressive personality for preventing the Jewish state from forming any bonds of trust with Arab neighbors, and for thereby undermining the Mideast peace process.

Few can imagine a replacement for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat who could make as many compromises for a peace deal, given Mr. Arafat's long history as a guerrilla chief and uncompromising warrior for the Palestinian cause.

In Iraq, the regime would be completely different if it weren't for Saddam Hussein. His personality has been shaped by spending an entire life in intelligence and security circles.

About these ads

And in Iran, the charisma of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini forged the 1979 Islamic revolution and kept the revolution alive despite a decade-long war with Iraq and so-called "reign of terror" in the 1980s in which opponents were eliminated.

Relationship with Israel

In Jordan, Hussein maintained such a special relationship with Israel that some on both sides of the Jordan River - either with pleasure or with derision - referred to him as the "king of Israel." This "intimate alliance ... is the difference of a ruler relying on his own judgment, and a ruler relying on his aides and advisers," says Ehud Yaari, the Mideast commentator for Israel TV.

It was the king's 30-year association with the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the deep trust they shared that demonstrate the power of personality here. Mr. Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Jewish seminary student in November 1995, and although another man lauded for his commitment to peace - Shimon Peres - was next in line, the chemistry was not there and gave way to mistrust.

"Personality affects [all this] conduct and behavior," says Mr. Yaari. "Much of the credit for the peace treaty depended on how Rabin and Hussein were close for so long and knew how to manage it."

Under Mr. Netanyahu, that dynamic is even more strained. "Netanyahu was positioned to significantly push the peace process forward, but his undoing was his own personality," wrote Abraham Rabinovich, a veteran journalist with The Jerusalem Post, in the International Herald Tribune.

Controversial actions

Analysts note that Hussein was part of controversial actions: Jordan was a big loser in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, giving up the West Bank and control of the Muslim holy sites of Jerusalem; Jordan did not join the American-led coalition against Saddam in 1991; and Jordanians were shocked in 1977 when it was revealed that their king had been on the CIA payroll for 20 years.

Any one of these events might have toppled a lesser figure, but Hussein weathered the storms and such mistakes were forgiven, in part, analysts say, because of his personal touch.

In his short apprenticeship as crown prince, Abdullah has said that he will follow in his father's footsteps as a peacemaker and stable ruler for Jordan. But following such a strong example will make success difficult to calculate, analysts say.

"People who live in the shadow of historical figures tend to suffer," says Hamarneh of the University of Jordan. "The king is a very tough act to follow, and it is very unfair to judge [his son] in the same way."

Some Arab nations have already encountered this. In Egypt, President Anwar Sadat never grew beyond the shadow of Arab nationalist legend Gamal Abdel Nasser, despite signing a peace treaty with Israel in 1979 and being a favorite of the West.

Saddam's son Uday is reported to have said: "Just wait until I become president. I'll be crueler than my father ever was.... You'll yearn for the time of Saddam Hussein." But an assassination attempt in Baghdad in 1996 left him partly paralyzed, and any father-to-son succession with Uday in doubt.

For now, Jordan is preparing for Hussein's funeral today, which about 40 world leaders are expected to attend. Black flags of mourning began emerging across a rainswept Amman yesterday, and black banners were slung across the portraits of the king.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.