Disease. Coma. Organ failure. Yasser Arafat's death may or may not spark renewed Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, but it certainly speaks to a grim reality about Arab politics. Throughout North Africa, the Levant and the Persian Gulf, change at the top involves a mourning tent and a burial shroud. There is no graceful passing of the torch, or stately retirement.

Death has become the de facto term limit.

That's why the politics and economics of the Arab Middle East remain so dated and sclerotic. Arab heads of state in large part operate with lifetime sinecures. It takes something cataclysmic -- a stroke or a U.S. invasion -- to oust them. And then their sons or close advisers usually take over.

Just as happens to any system that lacks a way to reinvigorate itself with competition, new ideas and younger blood, the result is predictable: corruption grows, innovation wanes and progress halts. Economic monopolies get sluggish and unresponsive, and so do political ones.

Even the death of a leader can fail to rattle the aging bones of these political systems -- and that's why it would be dangerous to hope for too much from Arafat's successor, whoever he might be. Old leaders die hard, but old habits die harder.

Six years ago, there were glimmers of a different order in the making. As leaders such as Syrian President Hafez Assad and Jordan's King Hussein grew older, it seemed possible that their generation -- weaned on palace intrigue and war with Israel -- would give way to younger leaders with college degrees and reformist ideals. Since 1999, five Arab heads of state have died (six including Arafat) and five of their sons have succeeded them -- in Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, Syria and the United Arab Emirates. If you're looking for turnover in the top ranks of Arab politics, that's largely it.

Yet none of the "new breed" of Arab leaders has indicated any plans to pursue a career path other than staying in charge until the bitter end. And this generation seems to have concluded that the best way to ensure that is to avoid risks -- and reforms.

In Syria, there were some who hoped that the death of Hafez Assad might bring change. Newsweek called Assad's son and successor Bashar "a low-key bachelor who is more at home surfing the Internet on his personal computer than hobnobbing with the apparatchiks of the ruling Arab Socialist Baath Party." Bashar represented "a very big change in outlook," said one respected U.S.-based academic. Time called the younger Assad a "mild-mannered ophthalmologist."

Mild-mannered or not, he has cemented his hold on the Baath Party and his style of governing has not veered from his father's example.

This authoritarian streak might not be surprising in hereditary monarchies like Jordan's. But King Abdullah II's accession to the Hashemite throne after the death of his father was accompanied by talk that he would delegate more formal power to an elected parliament, and thus give Jordanians a greater voice in running the country.

That hasn't happened either. Like the rest of his "peer cohort," the king has focused on consolidating power and keeping the country under control -- a necessary tactic perhaps, particularly given the intifada in Israel, the threat of terrorist violence, and war in Iraq. But there will probably always be a crisis complicating reform, and after a time this sort of evasion becomes merely a self-sustaining exercise.

There's no shortage of such excuses for maintaining the status quo. Syria is formally at war with Israel. The young king in Morocco faces an Islamist threat and secessionist movement in the Western Sahara. Bahrain's Sunni ruling family governs a majority Shiite country. When Bahraini opposition groups began discussing constitutional reforms -- changes that could challenge power at the top -- they were warned about "expressing opinions violating the law" and reminded that constitutional change was the province of the authorities. Such is the status of free speech in one of the region's more pro-Western states, home of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.

The Bahraini example is a reminder of how U.S. engagement in the Middle East has done little so far to promote democracy. We've talked a good game, but have not convincingly put our money or our influence in service to our values. Even with a new foreign-policy lineup for President Bush's second-term cabinet, that approach isn't likely to change.

With all eyes focused on the U.S. intervention in Iraq, it is easy to forget the instances where deep U.S. involvement over the long-term has helped sustain an undemocratic status quo because it furthered other interests -- commerce in oil, in the case of Saudi Arabia, or peace with Israel, in the case of Egypt and Jordan.

Tempting as it may have been to think that ousting Saddam Hussein and ending the Baathist autocracy in Iraq would let democratic values flourish, it overlooks the fact that the United States has been intimately involved in Saudi Arabia for half a century, and democracy hasn't exactly broken out there. That country's nominal ruler, King Fahd, is incapacitated and wheelchair-bound, while an elderly collection of brothers and half-brothers hover nearby, waiting for a spin on the throne. Distaste for the situation is perhaps the one thing that Western-educated reformers and hard-line fundamentalists in the kingdom can agree on.

The United States has poured more than $50 billion into Egypt over the last quarter-century, and placed advisers in every nook and cranny of the government and military. President Hosni Mubarak's reign, under the close watch and counsel of the United States, has reached a pharaonic 23 years. The only mystery 70 million Egyptians entertain about the future is if Mubarak will bequeath the job to his son Gamal or whether the next president will emerge (as have all previous ones) from the defense and intelligence establishment. Either way, they know they will have little say in the matter, and that the timing is in the hands of God.

Does it matter? In the emotional aftermath of the U.S. election, it is easy to forget the importance of that democratic exercise. Over the last several months, this country had a pretty thorough vetting of two considerably different major candidates. More than 100 million people registered their opinion privately and safely. If the process was not 100 percent perfect -- what large institutional procedure ever is? -- it is hard to quibble with the election as a reflection of popular opinion.

Residents of the Arab states don't get to do that too often, if at all.

In rebuttal, officials from the Arab countries point to the many elected parliaments in the region or to institutions like the shura council in Saudi Arabia as ways for their citizens to influence government. There are, indeed, many such formal structures, but none can lay claim to being democratic in anything other than a token sense.

Egypt has a parliament, for example, but tough police tactics have helped make sure that few opposition candidates win office. Power lies with Mubarak and his National Democratic Party. Every six years people are asked to ratify Mubarak's rule in make-believe exercises that merely confirm (by 90 percent-plus margins) the existing order. The same basic, one-party arrangement exists in other Arab "republics" such as Syria and Yemen, whose governments are "of the people" in name only.

As for the monarchies, Saudi Arabia's shura council advises the government, an arrangement rooted in the Islamic principle that rulers should consult with the community. But the council is appointed. Ranking members of the Saudi royal family, including the de facto ruler Crown Prince Abdullah, also hold open tent sessions on a regular basis where anyone can come to discuss their troubles. But begging for a new car or cash for medical care -- to cite some of the common discussion topics -- is not the essence of democracy.

There, as in the rest of the Arab states, political discourse is constricted by the fact that the leader is the leader, and that's that. It's a reality that leaves very little room for ideas outside a narrow orthodoxy to grow or take hold -- and that means stagnation in politics, economics, religion and culture.

Maybe it will be different for the Palestinians after Arafat's death. Arafat had no son to whom he could bequeath power, but his successor will feel less secure and therefore be even less likely to take risks for peace or reform. Maybe, too, it will be different in post-Saddam Iraq once elections are held. But at this point, the norm in the region is for rulers to rule for life -- unaccountable, irremovable and with no incentive to change.

American involvement has done little to break that logjam at the top, as Saif Gaddafi, son and heir-apparent to longtime Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, made apparent in a recent BBC interview. A host of reforms are coming to Libya, the younger Gaddafi forecast, but not on the ultimate issue. "The leader you cannot change," he said. "You can change everything except the leader because he is a leader."

Which just goes to show that leaders may die, but some things never change.

Author's e-mail:

schneiderh@washpost.com

Howard Schneider, an editor in The Post business section, was the paper's Cairo bureau chief from 1998 to 2002. He taught at the American University in Cairo from 2002 to 2004.