Jordan's king under pressure as reforms stall

A woman holds up a banner saying "No to an expired government" at a protest demanding political reforms in Amman (4 May 2012) Jordanians have faced charges for making speeches or attending protests

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Pressure is mounting on King Abdullah of Jordan, a key US ally, to respond to similar popular demands that have turned the Middle East upside down over the past year-and-a-half.

Promised political and economic reforms appear to be stalling. Last week, King Abdullah appointed his fourth prime minister since the Arab Spring started here 17 months ago.

Protests erupted in the impoverished countryside south of the capital, Amman, last year before the uprisings which overthrew the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt.

Start Quote

People are now convinced that neither sacking a prime minister nor forming a government solves the problem”

End Quote Jamil Abu Bakr Islamic Action Front

While demonstrations have been generally smaller and more peaceful than elsewhere in the region, Jordanians have been pressing for greater political say - specifically the popular election of prime ministers - and demanding government corruption and unemployment be tackled.

The official unemployment rate stands at 11.4%, while unofficial estimates put it at 22%.

The rhetoric has also developed in restive areas, like Tafileh in the south, from calls for reform to calls for regime change.

Although the country has so far managed to weather the political turbulence of the Arab Spring that has seen other countries' presidents ousted, time is now a premium for the king, who has shown a penchant for deflecting criticism about policies by firing prime ministers.

'Daring' steps

On 26 April, Prime Minister Awn al-Khasawneh, a former deputy chief of the International Court of Justice at The Hague, surprised many by resigning.

Fayez al-Tarawneh speaks to reporters in Amman (2 May 2012) Fayez al-Tarawneh was given the task of organising new elections as a first order of business

Mr Khasawneh, who had only been in the job six months, was accused of not acting fast enough to bring about laws needed to hold parliamentary elections later this year.

The king quickly appointed Fayez al-Tarawneh, a former prime minister and royal court chief, to form a new government and deliver the reform agenda.

Interestingly, the conservative Tarawneh has called for "daring" steps to achieve the goal.

"Everyone was hopeful when Khasawneh was appointed given his respected background, but he did not show leadership in proceeding with the reform process," says Musa Shteiwi, who heads the University of Jordan's Strategic Studies Centre.

"The king issued the call for reform and said the path must start with elections, but how could that happen when discussion over the draft elections law was dragging?"

'Will of the people'

The opposition, including the Muslim Brotherhood's political party, the Islamic Action Front, criticised the law for failing to ensure that the next parliament would be truly representative of the country's diverse population.

The IAF boycotted the last legislative elections in 2010, saying it was marginalised at the expense of Bedouin supporters of the king.

Riot police deployed in Amman during a protest demanding political reforms (4 May 2012) Jordan's security services have been successful in dividing dissidents

But IAF spokesman Jamil Abu Bakr put the blame on the royal court and the powerful intelligence services for slowing reforms.

"The security services should refrain from interfering in politics," he said.

"People are now convinced that neither sacking a prime minister nor forming a government solves the problem," he added. "The only solution is to see a parliament elected by the will of the people and for a prime minister and government to emerge from that."

A recent report by the International Crisis Group claims that Jordan's security services have been successful in dividing dissidents by playing on historical divisions between Bedouin and Palestinians.

Activists are also paying the price with detentions for expressing public criticism of the monarch for failure to meet demands.

Minor concessions

Analyst Labib Kamhawi believes King Abdullah is trying to "buy time".

"Most of the reforms require accountability, democracy, and the ability of people to exercise their right to put in a parliamentary government, not a government chosen by the king. But he is not in the mood to give real concessions on these issues," Mr Kamhawi says.

King Abdullah (2 May 2012) King Abdullah has taken only cautious steps towards democracy

Last June, the king said it could take several years for Jordan's 33 political parties to form right-wing, left-wing and centrist coalitions before the popular election of a prime minister could take place.

Still, Mr Kamhawi questions how the king can state that he is the initiator and guarantor of reform in Jordan, as he recently told the European Parliament, because change could ultimately undermine his own position.

"The reform is against him. People are revolting and asking for reform because he trespassed on the constitution," Mr Kamhawi asserts. "The division of power between the branches of government does not exist because everything is run by the king."

He also says that the monarch has ordered parliament to start closing all the corruption cases it has been examining. In the process, several former government officials have been cleared of corruption charges. Once parliament closes a file, it cannot be reopened.

Risk

Mr Shteiwi believes the majority of Jordanians are more concerned about stability, given the results so far of the Arab Spring revolts.

"Most are for more reform, but the readiness to take a radical step for the system to change is slim," he says.

"But if we reach a point in the summer, where the Tarawneh government cannot get something that works, there will be a serious problem."

Mr Kamhawi concurs: "The king seems to be giving people one choice - either status quo with stability or reform with instability. I believe this is a very dangerous game.

"At the end of the day, people might be willing to take that risk, if they can't tolerate the conditions under which they are living. I believe it will be a 'hot' summer in Jordan, if that's the case."

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