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Vail Valley Voices: Peaceful transition or … ?

Ben Hadley
Vail, CO, Colorado

Autocrats and royals across the Middle East and North Africa face an increasingly urgent decision on how their legacy will survive internal political pressures.

A lasting role for the royal family or for a dictator’s child is a drama played out over the centuries. On one extreme we observe the success of King Juan Carlos of Spain and the establishment of a constitutional monarchy. On the other end of the spectrum, history records the experience of the Romanov dynasty and a sequence of decisions to crush opposition for nearly 100 years.

Monarchies have sought a balance between preservation of power and concessions necessary to preserve their role in government since the Middle Ages, beginning with Magna Carta in England.



Current responses to political-reform movements in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain offer autocrats and monarchies throughout the region the opportunity to draw lessons from history or a strong chance of repeating it.

Francisco Franco invaded Spain in 1936 from his garrison’s headquarters in Africa, grabbing power from an elected government. The promise of peace under Franco was little different from the themes justifying decades of autocratic rule under the Assad family in Syria, President Saleh in Yemen and Moammar Gadhafi in Libya.



For decades, Franco’s regime arrested and tortured political dissidents, and many of those who opposed the Falangist regime are buried in the Valley of the Fallen in Spain.

Traditions supporting monarchies in the Middle East may differ slightly, but royal families in Saudi Arabia and Jordan ascended to the throne by force and have preserved power through the same balance between concessions to their subjects and overwhelming response to any political opposition.

In November 1975, Juan Carlos succeeded Franco to lead Spain as king. Owing his coronation to the autocrat Franco, Juan Carlos faced a choice between preserving autocratic rule over Spain or incorporating political reforms advocated by dissidents imprisoned under his predecessor. By embracing a plurality of ideas and later transitioning power to constitutional monarchy, Juan Carlos carved a role for his family’s dynasty into the Spanish Constitution.



Autocrats and monarchies in the Middle East and North Africa may consider Juan Carlos’ decision to legalize the Spanish Socialist Workers Party and the Communist Party prior to the elections of 1977 as a viable model to preserve their families’ legacy while championing a new era of popular sovereignty.Autocrats in Syria, Libya and Yemen, along with the royal families of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morocco, find themselves witnessing interesting times. Would each of these rulers prefer an enduring role for themselves and their progeny, or can they best ensure their families’ political legacy with a blend of violent suppression, economic alms and a belief that the ideas proffered during the Arab Spring of 2011 are short-lived and will fade along with the memories of violent crackdown?

In Russia, the Romanovs crushed opposition and attempted the blend of suppression and minor reforms for nearly a century.

The Decembrist Revolt of 1825 and multiple assassination attempts in 1866, 1879, 1880 and 1881 outline a Russian aim of political reform that ultimately resulted in a violent end for the czar and his family.

Things turned out poorly for the Romanovs. Opposition to czarist rule resulted in attempted coups, protests, suicide bombings and ultimately the Bolshevik Revolution. Liberation from the Russian blend of feudalism and serf labor took nearly a century, but the idea proved stronger than the Romanovs.

Assad, Saleh and Gadhafi may emulate the choices of Nicholas I and his crushing of the Decembrist Revolt, but they should remain mindful that the Romanov dynasty was ultimately extinguished in a gruesome manner and shot in the basement under house arrest in July 1918.

Iran’s ruling elite may recognize the pattern. The end of Hashemite rule in Iraq and the Iranian revolution against the shah are more recent reminders of what modern monarchs and autocrats in the region may anticipate.

Violent suppression may work for a lifetime, possibly two, but history teaches that it is harder to kill a multigenerational desire for freedom.

Spain absorbed many, though not all, of the ideas advanced by political dissidents while committing constitutional monarchy into the law of the land. Czarist Russia rejected pluralism and reform.

Certainly the Spanish path seems wiser for royals such as Mohammed VI of Morocco, Abdullah II in Jordan, King Hamad of Bahrain and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, as it may already be too late for Gadhafi, Assad and Saleh.

If dynastic preservation and legacy were worthwhile objectives, it would seem a better choice to position one’s children for either a role in constitutional monarchy or as heirs to the champion of political reform.

Harnessing the energy of dissent and channeling it toward local elections and parliamentary process historically have proven better for the children of the monarch or autocrat who selects such a path.

For preserving one’s dynastic legacy, it seems a better path than the final moments of Saddam Hussein’s sons or the Romanovs in Russia.

Ben Hadley is the vice president of business development and corporate development at Resort Technology Partners.


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