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The Jordanian King’s Challenges

Jagdish N Singh is a senior Indian journalist and Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi.
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  • April 04, 2012

    At first glance it might appear that all is well with the Kingdom of Jordan. Under King Abdullah II ibn Al Hussein, Jordan has attained remarkable feats in the fields of economy, defence and diplomacy. The country’s annual growth rate stands at six per cent today and is set to rise higher as its famous special economic zone projects mature. The Kingdom has increased its defence capability with the acquisition of advanced weaponry. After Amman joined the United States-led forces in the second Gulf War in 2003, its relations with major Western powers as well as Gulf states have greatly improved. The King has also projected well his international image as a man of peace and harmony, attending several important summits with the United States, Israel and Palestine on the Arab-Israeli conflict and discussing with Pope Benedict XVI ways to promote values of tolerance and coexistence in the region.

    However, the reality on the ground is far different with the Kingdom becoming susceptible to the current waves of change blowing through the Middle East. Knowledgeable sources say that Jordan is being wracked by of chronic poverty and unemployment, rising energy and food inflation, acute water shortage, neglected human development and pseudo-democracy. The country’s official unemployment rate stands at 12 per cent, while the actual is estimated to be at least double that level. At six per cent, the inflation rate is hitting the masses hard.

    Progress on the democracy front has also been dismal. Reacting to the onset of the Arab Spring, in February 2012, King Abdullah outlined the goals of what he described as “self-transformation and progressive reform”. The goals include: “fair parliamentary elections, a law guaranteeing the broadest representation, a parliament based on political parties and governments drawn from that parliament.” However, nothing much has changed. The prime minister is still appointed by the king while the royal court and the intelligence services continue to call the shots. Further, the King’s non-seriousness in moving towards democracy can be discerned from an earlier speech he gave to parliament on October 26, 2011, in which he said, "As for governments formed by political parties, this issue rests in the hands of the citizens and voters, and it is very much conditional to the ability of political parties to freely compete." In other words, he would introduce a democratic system only after voters and political parties demonstrate the requisite maturity necessary for it.

    The King is hardly serious about ensuring freedom of expression as well. This can be discerned from his October 24, 2011 letter of designation to Prime Minister Awn al-Khasawneh, in which he stated: "the media should shun demagoguery and incitement, refrain from undermining the country's image and from character assassination… When democratic environment, press freedom, and freedom of speech are exploited to serve personal agendas and purposes, or to undermine the reform process or national unity, then this is a matter to be referred to the judiciary."

    In addition, the King’s lack of commitment to democracy is also clear given his inaction in addressing the continuing plight of the Palestinian-origin majority community (which obtained Jordanian citizenship when the Hashemite regime annexed the West Bank in 1948). Notwithstanding the ‘historic’ promise the King had made immediately after taking over from his father in 1999, they continue to endure the Kingdom’s discriminatory policies in all walks of national life. The East Bankers—Jordanians who inhabited the area before the arrival of the first Palestinian refugees in 1948—are the privileged lot in the country. Those of Palestinian-origin have had little share in the country’s political cake; they have been granted just six seats in the 120-member Parliament.

    Given the pattern shown by Islamist forces elsewhere in the region in the wake of the ‘Arab Spring’, they may well use the conditions of the masses in general and that of the Palestinians in particular to expand their influence and occupy the centre-stage in Jordanian politics. In order to counter such a possibility, King Abdullah has resorted to what the Islamists love the most—Israel-bashing. Notwithstanding the close relations, albeit often covert, that Jordan has established with Israel, the King recently accused Israel of having “continued to build settlements, particularly in Jerusalem” and posed “threats to holy sites.” He further noted that “Israel will have to choose between democracy and apartheid.” Besides, he has moved towards befriending the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in order to win the sympathy of the Sunni Muslim masses. This motivation is also behind the King’s call (the first by an Arab leader) for the Syrian President to step down.

    But such tactics are highly unlikely to win over the Islamists or prevent them from seeking to overthrow the King. The ideology and activities of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood are well known. To Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood head Hammam Saeed and its political arm the Islamic Action Front, the King, half-British and educated at Georgetown and Oxford, and his Queen Rania are too progressive to be “good Muslims” . They consider America as the greatest Satan on earth and the King as its stooge. They have been out to expose the King as a secret supporter of the West and Israel in the eyes of the masses.

    The Brotherhood may be calculating that its movement against the King today is likely to receive huge support particularly from the Palestinian refugees in Jordan. According to one estimate, in Jordan today, there are over 1.8 million registered Palestinian refugees. They have over the years been joined by 400,000 Palestinians from Kuwait, 700,000 from Iraq, Sudan and other parts of the region and now, in the wake of the ongoing Syrian uprising, over 81,000 Palestinians from Syria. Further, the movement against the King is likely to automatically gain support from Gaza-based Palestinian leaders such as Ismail Haniyeh and Mahmoud Zahar who are all under the influence of the ideology of the Brotherhood. Notwithstanding whatever Hamas leader Meshaal might have assured for tactical reasons to the King during his recent official visit to Jordan, what is likely to prevail finally on the former and his organisation is the temptation to have a government in Amman fully committed to the Hamas cause.

    Viewed against this background, the future of the Kingdom looks highly uncertain. For long, King Abdullah II has managed such challenges by playing the cards of social divides and external military support. This does not seem to be possible any longer. Even the East Bankers, who have historically stood like a rock behind the King’s regime, are a divided lot today. A section among them seems to think that the Kingdom’s new policies have resulted in a near collapse of the rural as well as public sectors wherein they have long been dominant. Some recent protests in the country show that a section of East Bank youths have even joined the growing movement for freedom and democracy. Abroad, the King is unlikely to gain support for quelling internal unrest with force. After all, this is an age of democracy, officially at least. The only way out for the King could perhaps be to commit himself genuinely to truly representative democracy and all-inclusive development. It remains to be seen if and how he takes a new path to remain relevant in his nation’s politics.