The Nasser of the 21st Century?

Bashir Assad is feared but also much mocked. Leaders in Lebanon find a need to look over their shoulders.

Sameh Ashoor, chairman of the Egyptian Bar Association, does not know where to hide his shame. Yes, he took part in the gala convention of Arab lawyers in Damascus, which provided the stage for a speech by Bashar Assad, and he even "advised" Assad that even if the world lined up against him and demanded that he appear before an international commission of inquiry, "we would stop them by force." But there was also something reprehensible about the convention, as far as Ashoor was concerned. Once the shouting in the audience began, comparing Assad to Gamal Abdul Nasser, the face of this sworn Nasserist fell. What was he hearing? Assad as "the Nasser of the 21st century?"

But Ashoor, who keeps a firm hold on his organization, which counts some 230,000 lawyers as members (and there were rumors before the presidential elections that he himself intended to run for the position) could not publicly respond. That job went to the shrewd Lebanese political columnist Ali Al-Haj, who garnered all the venom he could muster to lash out against the Syrian leader. In what way is Assad different from Nasser? asked Al-Haj in his column, answering the question without pause: "First of all, Nasser did not inherit the post from his father. Nasser meant what he said. In contrast, we will soon see Bashar, who boasted that the international community is merely a group of leaders who rule, that the Security Council is of no interest to him, that he is prepared to fight, etcetera etcetera, standing in front of a commission of inquiry that will ask him, 'Mr. President, did you threaten Rafik Hariri's life? We have a lot of witnesses who say you did, and one of them is your former deputy, Abdul Halim Khaddam.'"

"Assad, unlike Nasser, did not confront Israel or the West, except with talk and with destruction and explosions (that is, terrorist attacks that resulted in the assassination of public figures in Lebanon - Z.B.). Nasser was a real person, with a real person's pluses and minuses. All the rest, and especially those who emerged from the womb of the Ba'ath party (the ruling party in Syria, which also ruled Iraq - Z.B.) are impostors who have taken an inferior path. The comparison between Assad and Nasser is completely undeserving, unless it is in the same context as the comparison between Charlie Chaplin and Hitler in the film 'The Great Dictator.' But any straight-up comparison between Bashar and Nasser is an insult to memory and to history."

In the column, Al-Haj piled on his disdain for the comparison between the two leaders, and especially the regal air with which Bashar conducted himself in the speech. This week, I asked a Lebanese journalist via e-mail if he intends to write a column in response to Assad's speech. His response: "A joke that needs commentary is no longer a joke, and a joke that needs a column is already a subject for medical treatment. Assad evidently has gotten to the point where it is best to ignore him out of compassion."

But compassion is not the true attitude with which Assad is regarded by the Lebanese. Assad and his administration still strike great fear in the hearts of the Lebanese leadership. For instance, Saad Hariri, the son of Rafik Hariri, spends little time in Lebanon, preferring to fly around the world, from France to Washington to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states; Walid Jumblat, the Druze leader who attacks Syria and Hezbollah as part of his daily constitutional, is holed up in his huge family estate in Mukhtara; General Michel Aoun is rarely seen in Lebanon, due to his fear of assassination; parliament speaker Nabih Beri, who is fond of flying abroad, barely leaves home; and even Hassan Nasrallah admits in an interview with the newspaper Al-Hayat that he feels captive in the Harat Harayk neighborhood of southern Beirut, and that whenever he leaves his home, it requires extensive security arrangements and that he therefore avoids moving around the country.

Of course, Nasrallah is not afraid of Syria, but rather of acts of revenge by those who fear Syria, or by those who feel that Syria has assassinated their family members. Essentially, Lebanon is no longer governable, the government is not functioning, and all parties are waiting to see how the investigation of Hariri's assassination will progress, and where the next assassination will take place.

Kuwait's leader in poor health

Fame can be so fleeting. The emir of Kuwait, Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah, died two weeks ago, and the non-Arab world barely batted an eyelash. Nor did the news seem to rock the world of the Arab states. In the past decade, the succession of Arab leaders and their governments has become a matter of practical routine, particularly after the most important leaders - such as King Hussein, Hafez Assad and King Hassan II of Morocco - instituted an orderly "system" of transfer of government at their deaths: the father bequeaths his throne to his son, and the public accepts this changing of the guard without objection. We barely remember that the late Kuwaiti ruler was once at the hub of a historic turning point in the region: he was ruler of the state Saddam Hussein invaded in August 1990, setting into motion a historic process that is still continuing.

But the late emir did not leave office quietly. The succession in Kuwait has engendered another historical turning point. According to the constitution, the heir apparent, Saad al-Abdallah al Salem al-Sabah, is meant to succeed him and become the leader of Kuwait. For all intents and purposes, he had already been declared the heir, but then sharp opposition arose within the Kuwaiti parliament, whose speaker, Jassem al-Kharafi, felt that it would be improper to install a ruler over the emirate who himself is suffering from a serious disease, and may not be able to discharge his duties. Al-Kharafi felt that given Saad's condition, he would be unable to suitably fulfill the important position. However, given the absence of set guidelines for understanding the term "unable to fulfill his duties," the parliament speaker elected to make the succession conditional upon the heir taking his constitutional oath in public, standing erect, in front of parliament. If he was equal to this small task, it would dispel any notion that he was constitutionally "unable to fulfill" his duties as emir.

The background to all the tumult begins two years ago, when Saad was asked to give a speech before the parliament while standing up at the podium. At the time, it was the parliament speaker Ahmed al-Saadoun who rigidly insisted on it. However, Saad was already very ill, and when faced with the demand, chose simply to abandon the parliament without delivering the speech. Now, when a request for a public appearance and standing up during the oath-taking has been voiced once more, the camps are divided: some members of parliament have stated that the public oath is a must, and that the crown prince should have to face this simple physical test. The others, led by Salem al-Ali al-Sabah, head of the National Guard - who wants Saad to succeed the late emir - contend that the constitution does not expressly state how the oath-taking must take place. There is, therefore, no requirement for the crown prince to pronounce it in public, and that he can do so in his home or in one of the rooms in the parliament.

Until last week, the question remained unresolved, and the government was asked to furnish parliament with evidence that Saad was not equal to the task. A group of doctors submitted a medical report, on which the Kuwaiti parliament will be asked to vote. If two-thirds of the members of parliament decide that the crown prince is not competent to rule, Saad will be unable to assume power. But Kuwaiti democracy has a proviso: although the designated heir has not yet been sworn in, he can already dissolve parliament, preventing it from holding the debate on his accession. The problem is that in doing so he can also prevent it from holding the swearing-in session. This, too, is a model of democracy that may not be written into Western constitutions, but which grants real power to a parliament and restricts the ruler's authority. On Tuesday, the tricky situation was resolved. Parliament unanimously voted to remove the crown prince from office for medical reasons, and Kuwait is now preparing for the coronation of the next emir.

Love of lingerie in Saudi Arabia

The information that appeared in the financial section of the popular Arab Web site "Ilaf" should encourage every women's underwear manufacturer to swoop down on the Saudi market. According to the report, five million female customers in Saudi Arabia annually spend approximately $800 million on their undergarments. In other words, each Saudi woman spends an average of about $200 a year, as compared with her French counterpart, who spends about one-third less. Another notable fact is that Saudi women devote about three hours a month more to shopping than American women, and that Saudi women are no less fond of global brands than anyone else. Saudi chambers of commerce estimate that this market will only expand with the natural increase of the Saudi population, which currently grows at an annual rate of 3.5 percent.

Saudi authorities understand that this sector might be an excellent source of employment for women in the kingdom, which offers few job opportunities to women. A decision made by the Saudi government calls for retail shops selling women's undergarments to employ women exclusively. Herein lies the problem. Despite the eagerness to increase employment of women, it is hard to find women who would agree (or whose husbands would agree) to leave their homes and children for long workdays, to sell bras and panties. This problem is shared by the international retail chains that wish to enter the Saudi market or expand the selection of their products: there are no saleswomen. For now, Saudi Arabia will, it seems, continue to import ladies undergarments to the tune of about $1 billion a year.