It is to be hoped that the rather Shakespearian deathbed manoeuvres, dashing at the 11th hour his brother's 33-year expectation of inheriting the crown in favour of his eldest son, Abdullah, will come good. Brother Hassan had a high reputation abroad, especially in Israel where his fluent command of Hebrew and friendship with leading politicians meant he was a known and trusted quantity. Son Abdullah, on the other hand, has a reputation merely as a top soldier. It is assumed that he has learnt political skills from watching his father for the past 37 years, but it is not certain. And it is assumed that, as someone educated in Britain, he shares - or at least understands - the values of liberal democracy, and will thus continue King Hussein's pro-Western, pragmatic and peaceful policy.
It is in the values of liberal democracy that the conundrum lies. Western liberal democrats tend to take it as read that, if the Arab countries were democracies, the prospects of peace in the Middle East would be better. But it could be that it was preferable that an enlightened despot should have ruled Jordan for so long. The danger of democracy in a culture dominated by grievance against external enemies is that it could throw up an Islamicist demagogue who would want to fight again the wars of 1967 and 1973 against Israel, or fight the holy war against the American-dominated world order.
Equally, though, it could be argued that it is only by moving towards democracy that the rage of Moslem fundamentalism will be channelled into a constructive engagement with the rest of the world. The evidence from other parts of the globe is unclear. India and Pakistan are both democracies, and that has not stopped a series of "hot" wars, or an escalating "cold" war of nuclear weapons competition. Nor have the excesses of Islamic theocracy been noticeably curbed in Pakistan.
The issue of democracy is not raised by the succession in Jordan alone. Power has been effectively handed down in the house of Fahd in Saudi Arabia, while leaders in Egypt and Syria will be replaced in the next few years. Colonel Gaddafi in Libya is not a well man, while even Saddam Hussein must be approaching his rendezvous with mortality. In that context, King Hussein's limited moves towards a constitutional monarchy should be seen as a welcome attempt to secure power based on popular consent. King Abdullah should be given support to broaden his democratic base.
The best hope for advancing the Middle East peace process, though, lies in a different succession battle later this year. If the Israeli elections replace Benjamin Netanyahu with a leader who can unite the forces committed to peace and dialogue with the Palestinians, which are greater than the forces of hostility, then King Hussein's life work stands a chance of being completed.Reuse content