Jordan navigates warily in turmoil of Arab Spring, which touched autocratic states


At the traffic circle in front of the prime minister’s office, demonstrators still crowd the streets every week after Friday prayers. Six months since the protests in this desert kingdom started, hundreds of people still join in weekly chants calling for political reform. They still hold up signs demanding an end to government corruption.

But after about an hour of angry speeches, with 100 or so unarmed policemen watching from a polite distance, the protesters shake hands and head home. Friday is the weekend in Jordan, and even demonstrators want to get home to their families.

The protests of the Arab Spring have shaken much of the Middle East, but a handful of countries have found ways to prevent or calm the anger of the streets. Most prominent is Saudi Arabia, the oil behemoth that has headed off potential opposition by spreading the wealth, spending tens of millions of dollars to boost salaries.

Then there is resource-starved Jordan, with its ragged deserts and sputtering economy, where the massive and sometimes-violent protests of early 2011 have quieted to the weekly demonstrations.

At the heart of the political standoff is a half-British king trying to avoid the tumult. A darling of Western governments who celebrate him and his Palestinian queen as modern celebrity-monarchs, King Abdullah II has ushered in little democratic reform despite years of promises.

The king sits at the helm of a sprawling intelligence service, a carefully lubricated patronage system and a US-trained military. The economy is largely dependent on aid from Washington and Saudi Arabia. Government opponents say their phones are bugged and houses watched. At times, such as during national and municipal voting in 2007, his regime has blatantly rigged elections, critics say.

In Jordan, the king does face increasing criticism, but even the angriest political protesters seldom hold him responsible for their country’s troubles. His family dynasty, the Hashemites, rose to power centuries ago as the protectors of the Muslim holy city of Mecca. That, combined with the elaborate system of patronage aimed at powerful local leaders, has earned them immense loyalty among the Bedouin tribes who make up the traditional core of Jordanian society.

“The king is not a problem for us,” said Anis Musharbash, a courtly, gray-haired doctor and communist party member at a recent Friday protest.

“Who wants a revolution?” asked Mr. Musharbash, holding out his hands as he was firing a rifle. “Pow! Pow! Pow! Pow! Pow!” Then he shook his head: “We just want this country to change, step by step.”

It’s the central irony of modern Jordan: The man with the most political power is still widely seen as being above the political fray. So while the protesters want large-scale reform - more power shifted from the palace to parliament, an end to government corruption, inflation brought under control - few want an end to Hashemite rule.

“There is a moral contract between the Jordanian people and the Hashemites,” said retired general Ali Habashneh, a government critic. “We want them to remain as kings, to secure for us a good life and freedom.”

Analysts see few generalizations in the countries that have avoided the full force of the Arab Spring. Different countries have taken different approaches to seeking peace with protesters, whether it’s money in Saudi Arabia or legal reform in the tiny sultanate of Oman.

Jordan has a badly troubled economy, but its overall issues are more complex: a divide between the king’s Bedouin allies and Palestinian refugee families who want more political power; worries over nearby Israel, which many Jordanians see as a frightening presence; grumbling discontent over Queen Rania, whose beauty and fashion sense make her popular in the West, but who is seen with suspicion in conservative Bedouin circles.

Then there is political reform.

In Jordan, the palace insists it wants many of the same reforms as the protesters, including constitutional and legal changes that would curtail some of the king’s vast powers. He currently heads all three branches of government, and commands the army and the intelligence service. He names the prime minister, can dissolve parliament at will, and is a major influence on legislation.

Listening to his advisers, it’s hard to imagine the king, educated at the elite Massachusetts prep school Deerfield, becoming a commoner anytime soon.

“His Majesty is a liberal: economically and politically,” said Faisal Fayez, the speaker of parliament and a close ally of the king. “But His Majesty also knows the structure of Jordanian society. He knows reform will take time.”

His critics, though, wonder if he really wants change.

“There may be some reforms over the next six months or a year, but we think they will be really limited,” said Jamil Abu-Bakr, spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, Jordan’s largest opposition group. Abu-Bakr predicts any changes would only come in response to democratic shifts elsewhere in the Mideast. The Brotherhood wants the king stripped of much of his power, and says Abdullah is coasting on the reputation of his father, King Hussein.

Though he survived a string of assassination plots over the years, Hussein died a much-beloved king, an adventurer who loved jets and motorcycles, and who made peace with Israel. He also launched political reforms following bloody 1988 riots, including the first parliamentary elections in 22 years and the revival of multiparty politics.

While Hussein became king as a teenager, Abdullah, son of his father’s British-born second wife, was a career military officer before suddenly being named crown prince just ahead of Hussein’s 1999 death. While that has left many critics grumbling that he’s still learning to navigate palace politics, the goodwill Hussein nurtured is also paying off.

“There is no political blood in this country, and we are harvesting the benefits of that,” said Mohammad Al-Momani, a professor of political science at Yarmouk University. “People criticize the government, they criticize the regime. But at the end of the day, there’s no sense of needing revenge.”

It’s a sharp contrast to what happened in Bahrain, where protests earlier this year moved from demands for a constitutional monarchy to the overthrow of the king after a bloody crackdown by the regime.

While Jordan is not a police state, it can be easily mistaken as one: the often-thuggish secret police; the manipulated elections; the fawning royal stories in the government-controlled media; the thousands of billboards with the king’s face gazing upon his subjects.

However, the reality is complicated. It’s illegal to criticize the king here, but prosecutions are rare and those convicted often get royal pardons. The secret police are feared, but are not the constant, threatening presence as in countries like Syria and Libya. If some politicians say their phones are tapped, even the harshest critics speak fairly openly.

Abdullah has been talking about reform since coming to power, when he even floated the idea of a British-style constitutional democracy. But little was undertaken until the protests, which began over rampant inflation, and the specifics of any reforms remain unclear.

The king insists his early plans were thwarted by regional turbulence, like the U.S.-led invasion of neighboring Iraq and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, along with entrenched politicians and bureaucrats at home. Royal insiders say the former intelligence chief also convinced the king that reform could lead to the rise of Muslim militant politicians.

Today, though, it may be the economy that could slow reforms or lead to more protests.

While Amman is a modern, outwardly wealthy city, Jordan is struggling with a vast foreign debt, rising inflation, rampant unemployment and poverty.

“What makes (the king) not sleep at night is the economy,” said Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh. To push through political reform “he’s got to have the economy under control.”

The king also now even faces occasional criticism from his bedrock supporters, the Bedouins. They dominate the army and the police, and hold most government jobs. Over the years, though, their power has been reduced by rising numbers of Palestinians - “West Bankers” as they are known here - who now run many of the country’s top businesses.

A 2005 census said Palestinians officially made up 43 percent of Jordan’s 5.9 million people, though unofficial estimates put them at more than 60 percent.

Earlier this year, a public letter signed by 36 Bedouin tribesmen and retired military commanders laid out a string of criticisms, from worries over the economy to issues with Queen Rania, who they say has undue political influence.

While few of the signers were prominent, simply making such criticism in public was a watershed.

“The tribes, we believe in the Hashemite monarchy,” said Mr. Habashneh, the retired general and one of the signers. “When this trust itself is being touched, then there is serious danger.”