Flames of discontent

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 August, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 August, 1996, 12:00am

The spark that started the riots which swept southern Jordan may have been a doubling of the price of bread, the staple food of most Arabs, especially those living below the poverty-line. The riots lasted two days before being suppressed by the army. But the speed at which they spread from the ancient fortress city of Kerak to engulf other towns suggests other grievances also helped fan the flames of discontent. Popular dissatisfaction is rife in Jordan at King Hussein's enthusiasm for closer ties with Israel, especially as the economic boom expected after the signing of the 1994 peace treaty has failed to materialise.

Instead the International Monetary Fund has demanded painful economic reforms, which led to the rise in bread prices. Now the election of a hard-line Likud government in Jerusalem has destroyed what few benefits were previously seen to have flowed from the peace process. The king blamed the riots on Iraq, with which relations have been severed ever since he gave asylum to President Saddam Hussein's sons-in-law last year.

No doubt Baghdad was pleased to see them erupt. But since they took place among tribal Bedouin, traditionally the king's strongest supporters, it would have been difficult for Iraq to have incited them. Instead such accusations only serve to further alienate a public already unhappy about the U-turn in policy, after having firmly supported Baghdad during the Gulf War.

While there is no immediate danger of him being overthrown, the king now faces a major challenge to his legitimacy. On the ruined streets of Kerak, people are drawing parallels with the Palestinian intifada against Israel. The government's response is unlikely to ease tensions. The king has vowed to respond with an 'iron fist' and one ex-premier told those who cannot now afford bread to try tomatoes instead. Israel Foreign Minister David Levy was quick to back the crackdown. Such support the king could probably do without. With closer ties to Jerusalem than any other Arab nation, it is perhaps not surprising Jordan should be the first to feel the effects of the popular anger among Arabs caused by Premier Benjamin Netanyahu's victory.