Weakened Hussein comes home to a dynastic struggle

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The Independent Online
SPECULATION ABOUT a change in the succession to the throne mounted yesterday in Jordan as King Hussein returned to his capital, Amman, after six months of cancer treatment in the United States.

After piloting his own plane home King Hussein prayed on the rain-swept Tarmac before being embraced by his younger brother Crown Prince Hassan, who acted as regent during the King's illness and whose 33-year stint as heir to the throne is now in doubt.

Among the assembled Jordanian royal family greeting the King was Hamza, the King's 19-year-old son by his present wife Queen Nour, who is the most likely candidate to be the next crown prince.

The loss of all his hair as a result of chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota makes King Hussein looked older than his 62 years, 45 of them on the Jordanian throne. Doctors say he has made a full recovery, but his prolonged absence has set off a power struggle within the royal family.

Crowds were of only moderate size as the King drove through a damp and cold Amman. The poor turnout may be the result of the unaccustomed and much needed rain, but the 4.5 million Jordanians are worried by the unpopular 1994 peace treaty with Israel, Jordan's increased hostility to Iraq and a deep economic malaise that has lasted since the Gulf War.

The King increased rumours of a change in the succession on Saturday when he gave a television interview broadcast in Jordan in which he did not refer to Crown Prince Hassan, a hard-working administrator, as his successor or as regent. He later denied reports that he had discussed the succession with US officials saying: "No one has the right to speculate what goes on in the King's mind."

Jordan is in a delicate diplomatic position because it is a small power squeezed between Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader, to the east, and Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, to the west. Both have shown their contempt for Jordanian sovereignty by sending assassination squads to kill their domestic enemies in the streets of Amman.

In a small house discreetly watched by security police on the outskirts of Amman, Laith Shbeilat, the outspoken Jordanian opposition leader, recently released from jail, expressed misgivings yesterday about the possible removal of Crown Prince Hassan. He said Jordan needed political reforms and these could not be carried out by a weak leader.

He said: "Until two days ago when I heard the King's speech I did not believe it would happen, because I thought the King had more wisdom than to carry out a change like this." He said Prince Hamza was inexperienced, adding: "When you want to make political reforms putting a kid in charge is a form of gambling."

Crown Prince Hassan is in a curious position within the ruling Hashemite dynasty, installed by Britain after the First World War. In 1965, when King Hussein was in daily danger of assassination, his son Abdullah was only three years old and his younger brother Hassan was made heir. Today he has several sons with a claim to the throne.

Mr Shbeilat, who served seven months in jail after there was rioting in the southern city of Maan last year, said: "Jordan needs a constitutional monarchy and has an authoritarian monarchy. Dissidents are not killed here, but it is still a police state. Even a taxi driver needs to get a security clearance." Since 1994 the government has tried to marginalise the press and limited the scope of parliamentary opposition.

King Hussein never relaxed his grip on Jordan even from his hospital bed. Supporters of Crown Prince Hassan say he was in no position to resolve problems as regent, though he was blamed for anything which went wrong.