MPs play musical chairs as Arab Spring rages
AMMAN: It was only his second day in office, but Fayez al-Tarawneh, Jordan’s new prime minister, was already getting a hard time from the demonstrators streaming out of the mosque, shouting slogans against him, against corruption, price rises and the peace treaty with Israel.
Tarawneh need not have worried: only a few hundred people turned out earlier this month to attack the government — the country’s fourth such demonstration in 18 restive months. As Syria bleeds and Egypt faces its first post-revolution presidential election, Jordan’s political elite is playing what opposition critics dismiss as “musical chairs”.
Protests, in the capital and beyond, remain small and peaceful, and state repression is mild by Middle Eastern standards. “It’s true there has not been much violence because Jordan has not yet reached the tipping point,” said Eman Jaradat, a young civil society activist. “But I think it will happen.”
Officially, the mood is upbeat. Over coffee served by liveried servants in the royal palace, King Abdullah’s advisers insist he is fully behind reform: an independent election commission is being created; new laws and parliamentary elections are due by year’s end. Loyalists wax lyrical about the “gentle breeze” of the Arab spring wafting across the kingdom and a “Jordanian model” of managed change. It is the job of Tarawneh, a former prime minister with a reputation as a yes-man, to speed things up.
“I am convinced that His Majesty has a vision,” insists Malek Twal, director of the ministry of political development. “Elections will happen because we can’t afford for them not to happen — for the sake of the stability of the country and the survival of the regime.”
Yet many doubt the king’s commitment. “The results so far show the appearance of reform rather than real reform,” argues political scientist Mohammed al-Masri. “We are at a standstill,” complains Ali Abu Sukkar, of the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, Jordan’s best-organised political force. Blogger Naseem Tarawnah admits that he does not know whether the king is serious. “But whether he wants reform or not, he and everyone else wants stability,” he says. “If that means sacrificing reform he will do it.
Stability means buying as much time as possible.”
Elections will not resolve a severe economic crisis in a country that is heavily dependent on aid from the US, the EU and Saudi Arabia.
Jordan, as the wry saying goes, has a “caviar budget” when it can barely afford hummus and falafel. In 2011, 15 per cent of the population lived beneath the poverty line. Opulent west Amman, with its smart shopping malls, palatial villas and Filipino maids, is the glittering exception. Belt-tightening is risky because of Jordan’s enormous public sector — providing the livelihoods of perhaps 40 per cent of the entire 6.5m population.
Abdullah’s recent visits to tribal areas, with promises of more jobs in the police and gendarmerie, are designed to demonstrate that he is still looking out for his most loyal constituency. “You are the symbols of nobility and bravery,” he told cheering members of the Howeitat tribe after Bedouin soldiers on camels and horses escorted his convoy of black Land Cruisers into their flag-festooned encampment.
The crisis is writ large in Tafila, a grim southern town that has seen protests by al-Hirak, a movement that expresses the “dignity deficit” that unites all the Arab uprisings. Unemployment — perhaps 30 per cent nationally — is high among graduates and there is no sign of the wealth generated by the nearby newly-privatised potash mines. The arrest of tribal activists charged with insulting the monarch was an exception to the “soft containment” policy masterminded by the Mukhabarat secret police. Twenty were pardoned after elders paid homage to the king.
Topping the list of popular concerns is corruption, with a rash of unresolved cases it is whispered may lead back to the palace. Claims that the king ordered MPs to block an investigation landed one journalist in a state security court for incitement. Mohammad al-Dahabi, a former Mukhabarat chief, faces charges of money-laundering, abuse of power and embezzlement — though some suspect he may be a convenient scapegoat.
“Five years ago none of our listeners would dare talk about politics,” says Daoud Kuttab, who runs the independent Radio Balad. “Now the phone is ringing off the hook. We hear about corruption on air, on the record, all the time.”
Even the king is coming under direct attack. Comments and caricatures posted on social media sites mock him and his penchant for Harley Davidson bikes — a savage contrast to a culture of official deference symbolised by the golden crown logo of Petra, the official news agency.
“Now young people are cursing the king and that’s a problem,” muses Laith Shubeilat, an outspoken opposition leader who urged Abdullah to change to save his throne. “We are tumbling economically and in terms of corruption. It’s a farce.”
The official narrative is that reform must be gradual and take into account Jordan’s “specifics” and regional complexities. “There’s too much talk about constitutional monarchy and too much talk that the Islamists will not take part unless the king’s powers are limited,” argues Twal. “The large majority of Jordanians do not want to hear anything about touching the king’s powers.” Decoded, those “specifics” are largely about the ever-sensitive relations between East Bank Jordanians and Jordanians of Palestinian origin who make up at least 50 per cent of the population, many of whom support the IAF. This worries those who fear an Israeli plan to annex the West Bank for an “alternative” Palestinian homeland. “The state has used divisions between Jordanians and Palestinians to divide and rule and contain the protests,” said al-Masri. “The decision-makers are relaxed and feel they are still in control. But it’s the Arab spring and the world is changing. We need leaders who think about the future, see things in a wider perspective and don’t just go for quick fixes.”
Abdullah, say critics, seems to think the tide has turned in favour of the Middle Eastern status quo: factors include Bashar al-Assad’s survival in Syria, Islamist disarray in Egypt and, crucially, the lack of US pressure on Jordan. Those who reject this assessment include Awn Khasawneh, Tarawneh’s predecessor, who resigned after being blamed for moving too slowly on reform when his real crime, many feel, was reaching out to the IAF and thus falling foul of the palace and the Mukhabarat. “Spring is a seasonal thing,” Khasawneh quipped, “it keeps coming back”.
Lamis Andoni, a columnist for al-Arab al-Yom, put it more bluntly: “The regime has reached the conclusion — I think it’s a miscalculation — that it can carry on without making fundamental changes. It’s betting that the protest movement will get weaker and that it can fall back on its traditional power base of tribal leaders. It also feels certain that the majority of Jordanians of Palestinian origin will not turn against it. But the risk is that the economic situation will undermine those assumptions. People in Jordan are demoralised for more than a year. They are not sure demonstrations will make any difference. They are unhappy but fear the alternative.”
By arrangement with the Guardian