Mary Ann Sieghart: The dawning of Arab democracy

Most Jordanians don't want a revolution of the French kind; they just want a king who reigns rather than rules

Monday 21 February 2011 01:00 GMT

Two men in the Middle East have been watching Bahrain with particular horror. The Kings of Saudi Arabia and Jordan weren't quite so worried when it was only pesky dictators being overthrown in Egypt and Tunisia. However undemocratic their regimes, the Kings could always count on their people believing they had a certain legitimacy and lineage. But now that a real King is being threatened? The thrones in Amman and Riyadh must surely be trembling.

I have just come back from a week in Jordan, and the population there is gulping down the air of the new Arab Spring. Egypt and Tunisia pepper every conversation but when the subject turns to their own King Abdullah II, voices lower to a whisper. It's illegal to criticise the King there, and most people still see the monarchy as a source of stability in a country which could otherwise be grievously divided. But, as in the rest of the Middle East, people of all backgrounds want greater democracy, lower prices, less corruption and more jobs.

These economic and political reforms are in the gift of the King. Yes, Jordan has a Parliament, but elections are widely seen to be rigged, and the King has the power to sack Governments and dissolve Parliaments at will. Yesterday, he gave his first speech since the protests began, promising that he would bring in a new electoral law to give Parliament more power and that he would encourage his Government to tackle corruption. But he didn't say whether he was prepared to give up his power to appoint the Prime Minister.

King Abdullah of Jordan is at least responsive to public opinion, even if he seems to be reacting to demands rather than pre-empting them. As soon as the President of Tunisia was ousted and before Egypt followed suit, the King sacked his Government and brought in a new Prime Minister and Cabinet. In the past, this might have been enough to placate the citizenry. But with all that was happening in the rest of the Middle East, it soon looked like too little.

Every Friday in Jordan for seven weeks there have been protests in the streets. Last Friday, there was violence too; opposition groups claimed the Government had sent in its own armed thugs and that the police refused to intervene. The opposition is an extraordinarily diverse bunch: a newly formed youth movement has lined up with the Muslim Brotherhood, westernized middle-class professionals, Bedouin tribesmen and former army generals to call for reform.

So far Jordan hasn't cracked down on its protesters the way Bahrain did or Libya is still doing. The King has been under pressure from his ally, America, to bring in more reforms and to do so peacefully. Last week, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, made a personal visit to King Abdullah. Jordan matters greatly to the West: it shares a long border with Israel, a shorter one with Iraq, and it is a beacon of relative moderation in the region.

It is also the home to nearly three million Palestinians, roughly half the total population. Most of them have Jordanian citizenship. Supporters of the King claim that only the overarching institution of the monarchy can bridge the divide between citizens of Jordanian and Palestinian origin, and that the overthrow of the King would lead to civil war.

For this reason, it is unlikely that King Abdullah will soon be packing his bags and heading for sanctuary in Jeddah or London. But many of his people are still fed up with him and his wife, Queen Rania, and are now, finally, prepared to say so, whatever the consequences.

The King has always been buttressed by the powerful Bedouin tribes (known as East Bankers) and the Army, both are which are ethnically Jordanian, not Palestinian. So a taboo was shattered last May when a group of former generals sent him an open letter complaining about corruption, favours for Palestinians, the rigging of elections, the unaccountability of government, and political interference by the Queen.

Then, two weeks ago, another letter was sent to the King, this time by 36 tribesmen, also complaining about the Queen, the enrichment of her family, and her interference in politics. Queen Rania is of Palestinian origin, which of course doesn't endear her to the East Bankers. But they outspokenly accused her and her family of "looting the country and the people", of "building centres of power for her own interest" and of "wasting public money to improve her personal image abroad at our expense".

Few Jordanians believe that any of this would have happened under Abdullah's father, King Hussein. Hussein was charismatic and wily in equal measure. Abdullah has little charisma and not enough cunning to placate the supporters he needs to keep on side. Hussein was widely seen as the father of the nation; his posters are still all over Jordan, 12 years after his death. Abdullah, by contrast, is turning into a Wizard of Oz figure: a patriarchal symbol the country wants to believe in, but who is underwhelming in the flesh.

It was in the home of Fares Fayez, a member of the Bani Sakher tribe, that this controversial letter was drafted. A grizzled, kindly-looking man, he received me in resplendent Bedouin dress, on kilim cushions, but took care to tell me that he also had a PhD in Political Science. "We want to go back to the 1952 constitution – it's our Magna Carta," he explained. That constitution gave the King many fewer powers than he has now.

"The absence of democracy has led to big problems of corruption," claims Fayez. "There are two classes in Jordan: 5 per cent of the people control 90 per cent of the riches of the country, and 95 per cent of the public control only 10 per cent. This has made poverty a big problem. Now, because of rising food prices, there is a lot of hunger and not just poverty."

And these are the words of a candid friend. "We're not his enemies; we're his advisers. We advise him better than the hypocrites who clap next to him." Is he worried he will be punished? He shakes with laughter. "For my country, for my land, we should sacrifice! I am like Oliver Cromwell."

This is why King Abdullah should be worried. I wasn't surprised to hear open criticism of him or his regime from youth leaders or from the Muslim Brotherhood. But when his traditional supporters are turning on him, that bodes ill.

So the next few weeks will be critical for a regime that is strategically important for the West. Most Jordanians now want a King who reigns but does not rule. They want a new election law that ensures the party with the most parliamentary seats will form a Government. They want corruption rooted out and they want to earn enough money to feed and clothe their families properly.

For the King to survive, he needs to enact all these reforms now, to get ahead of the curve of public opinion rather than being dragged reluctantly behind it. Most Jordanians don't want a revolution of the French kind; they just want a peaceful transition to democracy.

And if Abdullah's promises of greater democracy don't deliver? Then things could turn ugly. As the political analyst Labib Kamhawi told me: "The King has to initiate reforms or we force these reforms on him. It's simple." The Middle East always used to be complex. But now it's getting simpler by the day.

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