The passing of King Hussein: Mantle of power passes to prince as Hussein fades

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WHEN DO you turn off a king's life support system? Never before has the Middle East faced the predicament which confronted Crown Prince Abdullah of Jordan and his family yesterday.

Officially appointed regent in the morning, King Hussein's eldest son visited his brain-dead father late on yesterday afternoon but no decision had been taken on the life-and-death issue which here involves religious practice, royal protocol and international politics.

Islamic precepts suggest that the Jordanian royal family will not switch off the machinery at the King Hussein Medical Centre, which is all that keeps the monarch alive. "It's hard to predict how long he's going to survive, but we're talking about days to weeks." said a member of the medical staff familiar with his condition. Dialysis machines and intravenous drips were still pumping life into a king who, as a deeply religious man, believed that he should die when God - not man - decides. But the science of prolonging the lives of the desperately sick took no account of the Koran any more than it did the Bible. No Muslim prelate has yet defined Islam's response to a development which takes the moment of death out of the hands of Allah.

"The royal family would like the change in Jordan to come about in an orderly way and without any sense of shock," said a friend of the family. "They want the country to accept the fact of the king's death without people wailing in the streets and tearing their hair out."

It was not difficult to understand their concern when crowds of Jordanian men remained outside the hospital yesterday evening, many of them praying on their knees in the roadway with their wives in tears beside them.

Only after he arrived back in Amman on Friday - comatose, though one report claims he briefly held Queen Noor's hand after leaving his aircraft - did King Hussein's family first realise the desperate choice that confronted them. If he is to be buried before sundown on the day of his death as Muslim tradition here demands - or within 48 hours if this is not possible - there will be little time to summon the world's leaders to a state funeral. If the royal family and the cabinet were to decide in advance to switch off the life-support machine, it would be easier to arrange a funeral befitting a monarch.

When Jordanians therefore learned that President Clinton was expected in Amman today or on Monday, rumours began to be heard in the city that the king's life would be brought to an official end within hours. But in a society which values institutions as well as human life, such a premeditated decision could be regarded as a cold and macabre act. For some time yesterday, it looked as though the Jordanian parliament would have to be summoned to appoint Abdullah regent but the cabinet decided that it could confirm the crown prince as future king under the constitution.

Jordanian state television showed tape of Crown Prince Abdullah greeting his council of ministers - the handshakes were firm but there were no smiles - in an effort to reassure Jordanians that power was passing in due process to the king's son. Less publicly, of course, any decision to switch off the king's life-support could be taken privately on the grounds that his natural life had already ended. The public could then be told King Hussein had died in the intensive care unit from the cancer which had been slowly killing him for more than four years.

The Jordanian press followed its now familiar habit of giving as much space as possible to the least possible information about the king's health. "Jordan is a country of clarity and the people will be kept informed," was one of the more imperishable headlines to be a read by a people who openly ask foreigners what is going on in their country. King Hussein did not create a nation strong enough to foster a really free press and the opinions of the new regent Abdullah - thanks to the king's last-minute decision to switch crown princes - are so little known editors are fearful of offending him.

When Nasser Judeh, the Jordanian minister of information, yesterday announced that King Hussein was "no longer able to carry out his duties", it was his first public statement in well over a year. Mr Judeh had been silenced by Hussein after comparing him to the now disgraced Crown Prince Hassan, Mr Judeh's father-in-law.