Jordan’s king steers nation through turbulence
The foiling of a planned al-Qaeda terror plot in Jordan underscores a new subplot in the story of the Arab Spring. Things are heating up for King Abdullah II, a Western-oriented monarch who has run a business-friendly, pragmatic monarchy with some trappings of democracy.
Jordan, a key US ally that sits at a strategic crossroads between neighbouring Syria, Iraq, the Palestinian territories, Israel and Saudi Arabia, has so far weathered 22 months of street protests calling for a wider public say in politics.
But this week’s announcement that Jordanian authorities had thwarted an al-Qaeda plan to attack shopping malls and Western diplomatic missions in the country has raised fears that extremists could take advantage of growing calls for change to foment violence.
The king also has been working overtime to fend off a host of domestic challenges, including a Muslim Brotherhood boycott of parliamentary elections, increasing opposition from his traditional Bedouin allies and an inability to keep the Syrian civil war from spilling over the border.
So far, Abdullah has largely maintained control, partly by relinquishing some of his powers to parliament and amending the country’s 60-year-old constitution. His Western-trained security forces have been able to keep protests from getting out of hand. And most in the opposition remain loyal to the king, pressing for reforms but not his removal.
The stakes are high: Abdullah is a close friend of the United States and has been at the forefront in its global war on terrorism, including in Afghanistan. Jordan serves as a buffer zone to Saudi Arabia, another Sunni Muslim country, and to Israel, a friend under a peace treaty signed in 1994. The kingdom hosts the largest Palestinian population outside the West Bank.
“The worst nightmare would be for Israel and Saudi Arabia,” said liberal lawmaker Jamil Nimri. “Jordan shares the longest border with Israel and is one of its few remaining Arab friends, while for the Saudis, it’s a neighbouring country with a similar monarchy system in trouble.”
Concern over Jordan’s stability was underlined last month, when its US, British and French allies quickly dispatched their military experts to help Jordanian commandos devise plans to shield the population in case of a chemical attack from neighbouring Syria.
Jordan is worried that Syrian President Bashar Assad might lose control over his chemical weapons in the civil war and that his stock could subsequently fall into the hands of al-Qaeda or Lebanon’s Islamic militant group Hezbollah.
More than 210,000 Syrian refugees also have fled to the kingdom to escape the violence at home, straining basic services like water, electricity and the health care system.
In the past three months, dozens of Jordanian policemen were wounded in violent riots at a dust-filled refugee camp packed with 35,000 Syrians near the northern border.
A growing number of stray Syrian missiles also have fallen on Jordanian villages in the north in recent weeks, wounding several civilians as Assad widened his offensive against rebel holdouts near the Jordanian frontier.
A Jordanian border patrol officer also was shot dead on Monday during army clashes with eight militants who sought to illegally cross a border fence into Syria.
Hours before the clash, Jordan announced that authorities had arrested 11 suspected al-Qaeda-linked militants for allegedly planning to attack shopping malls and Western diplomatic missions in the country with explosives and rockets.
Two Arab diplomats, insisting on anonymity because they are not allowed to make press statements, said regional intelligence indicates that militants see Jordan as an “easy prey” as they try to consolidate their presence between hot spots.
“The Jordanian people can never enjoy complete stability when our country is surrounded by wars and uprisings,” said Yousef Matarneh, a 45-year-old civil servant.
Abdullah has tried to forestall Arab Spring-style uprisings that have toppled autocratic regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya, and led to the war in Syria.
His reform roadmap envisions parliamentary polls as a vehicle toward having an elected prime minister for the first time in Jordan’s history. Previously, it was the king’s prerogative to appoint the premier.
Abdullah also has been trying to buttress his ailing economy, straining under US$23 billion foreign debt, a record deficit of US$2 billion and rising inflation, by inviting foreign investment and marketing Jordan as a tourist destination.
“If you want to change Jordan for the better, there is a chance, and that chance is through the upcoming elections,” he told a gathering of 3,000 prominent politicians and businessmen on Tuesday. “There is a way, and that way is through the next parliament.”
But the opposition, dominated by the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, is boycotting the January 23 vote and vowing to continue street protests.
The Islamists argue that a new election system gives too much weight to traditional tribally based conservatives loyal to the monarchy who dominate local politics. The government insists that Jordan’s system is used by many countries, and that the Islamists’ preferred all-party list system would inflate their numbers.
Many Jordanians are keen to avoid the turmoil that followed the revolution in Egypt, which led to the election of a Muslim Brotherhood member as president of the Arab world’s most populous nation.
“We will not trade our stability for anything. People in the region envy us for it,” said 25-year-old Mohammed Shneikat, who works at a music store in Amman.
The king’s supporters point to voter registration that has exceeded 2.3 million, or 33 per cent of the country’s six million population.
“Nobody wants the king to abdicate,” said independent lawmaker Hosni Shiyyab. “There’s a consensus among supporters and opponents that he should stay because he is a stabilising factor among the different segments of the society.”
There are, however, signs of increasing opposition. Street protests in Jordan have remained largely peaceful, but recent slogans have begun pointing to the king, breaking a longstanding taboo against criticising him.
“Abdullah, listen well, your reforms are cosmetic. The Arab Spring’s next stop is Amman,” chanted 7,000 Islamist opposition and youth movements during a recent protest in the Jordanian capital – the largest gathering in months.
Even the king’s traditional supporters have started to voice unheard of criticism, with young Bedouins staging small rallies to rebuke the monarch, although their families still form the bedrock of support for Abdullah’s Hashemite monarchy.
“He gave us nothing. In fact, he made us poorer and without jobs,” lamented Yazan, 26, a high school teacher who earns US$300 a month. He declined to give his last name fearing government reprisal.