Friends shun lone dissenter of Jordan

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The Independent Online
SITTING beside his little rose garden in the suburbs of Amman, Leith Shubeilath looks remarkably chipper for a man who has just returned from the Hashemite dungeons. But as he admits, being jailed by His Majesty King Hussein bin Talal isn't that bad.

In his desert prison he could watch television, eat plenty of meat and eggs, and sleep with fresh sheets on his bed (a privilege not enjoyed by lesser inmates). There are those who say that the King and he respect each other - which, I suspect, is true - and those who say that Jordan's monarch and Leith Shubeilath actually like each other, which, I fear, is a lie.

Anyone who goes on criticising the Jordanian royal family, demanding a "return" to "constitutional" monarchy, an end to royal influence in the institutions of power, and the creation of an independent judicial system, must be a pest to the man who, from his cancer bed at the Mayo clinic, is watching the total collapse of the peace he so fervently sought in the Middle East. Little comfort, then, that Mr Shubeilath also likes to lecture Saddam Hussein on human rights, Muammar Gaddafi on human folly and Syria on the "puppies" who rule the Arab world.

A consulting engineer by profession, an Islamist by nature - there are two Korans on the glass table beside him - Mr Shubeilath's is perhaps the only dissident voice in Jordan, now ignored by many of his old friends and supporters. "They are frightened to come and see me," he says. "Everyone is scared by this duel between me and the King. Maybe only 1 per cent of the people I would expect to welcome me home have come here to say hallo."

On the other side of the rose garden, a large Arab tent has been erected for well-wishers, packed with rows of white plastic chairs. All are empty.

Last time Mr Shubeilath was in prison, he was accused of defaming the royal family; why, he wanted to know, had Queen Noor wept at the graveside of the murdered Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, but shown no such compassion for the murdered Palestinian extremist leader, Fathi Shkaki?

He served his last eight months inside for allegedly inciting a riot in the Jordanian city of Maan when US forces appeared ready to strike Baghdad yet again. "I just said that Jordan was in a pact with Israel, America and Britain and that they were prepared to push Jordan to [invade] Iraq," he says. "A woman who came to the prison to see some of the inmates on my behalf was detained afterwards by the police of the Anti-Corruption Directorate. And they told her: 'We deal with political corruption - don't you know that someone who says hallo to Leith Shubeilath is in danger?' "

And here I begin to wonder about Mr Shubeilath. Given his lack of welcomers, given the number of folk in Amman who say he has become the "lone ranger" of Jordanian politics, given the fact that Jordan is one of the mildest of all Arab states, isn't he in danger of growing what the Arabs call "a big nose", a rather inflated view of his own importance?

Not so, he insists, and begins to talk nervously of rumours - hints that his friends have picked up - that a few of the lads in the local constabulary would like him to be, well, terminated. "The muhabarrat (intelligence services) say, unofficially, that I'm going to be killed if I don't stop speaking out," Mr Shubeilath says.

Really, I ask? Why? And off he goes on what he calls his programme: "This absolute monarchy must be driven back to its original track as a constitutional monarchy ... Our country is being sold; the rich, led by His Majesty, must bring their money back to Jordan. Don't these people trust this country and its economy? Don't they say that the higher in position you are in Jordan, the more you love Jordan? Would I dare say I love Jordan more than the King? Why don't we establish a fund led by His Majesty's wealth? I'm not going to ask where he gets his money - we were all poor 40 years ago."

Mr Shubeilath is in his element now, questioning the actions of his King. "This absolute rule we have is like the gods on Mount Olympus - they may differ among themselves about who takes what but they dominate the people and no one has the right to question them. In our pseudo-democracy, the lowest-ranking god is a minister - merely to indict him with anything you need a two-thirds vote in parliament. Everything is being run from the palace. They say the King has his eye on every tiny thing in the kingdom - so every small item in this country is dependent on a sick man in the Mayo clinic."

Now this is strong stuff. And as if to ameliorate his words, Mr Shubeilath flexes his international muscles. When Saddam hanged three Jordanians for smuggling, he travelled to Baghdad and extracted more than 200 Jordanian citizens from Iraq's jails after telling the Iraqi leader that he, Saddam, had protected the biggest smuggler: his son-in-law Hassan Kamel (already "terminated" by his father-in-law by the time Mr Shubeilath arrived in Baghdad). "I told Saddam Hussein that the revolutionary 'Khomeinists' whom he fought in 1980 were ready to fight for him against the Americans in 1998."

In Libya he riled the peacock Colonel Gaddafi. "He was talking to us about presidents and kings and I asked him, 'But what have you done to all your [Libyan] revolutionaries? Do you want to know what the Arab nation thinks of you? They think it's stupid to go to Libya because its leader is 'loco'." Col Gaddafi left the room.

I am beginning to feel sorry for the Libyan leader, let alone King Hussein. "You must understand I am not against the King," Mr Shubeilath goes on. "We need him - we need the monarchy, but constitutional monarchy. The monarchy has to be upended, not uprooted. I am a radical reformist, not a putschist. But you should ask anyone what they think about me, anyone in Jordan - and you will find they support me."

So I ask the driver taking me to Amman airport what he thinks of Leith Shubeilath. "A good man - he says the truth," he replies. I ask the security man at Amman airport's check-in. "He is a sincere man," he says. I ask the Royal Jordanian Airlines check-in clerk. "He is a very polite man with a good heart," she says. A bullseye. But who is the target? And I wonder if lightning could indeed strike from the gods on Mount Olympus.

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