Tough choices for Jordan’s King Abdullah

Egyptian precedent, which surprised the world, is lesson in humility about guessing the future in the Middle East.

King Abdullah (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
King Abdullah
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
The unrest that toppled the autocracy of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia is threatening to do more of the same in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt. Literally overnight, one of our few diplomatic assets in the Middle East – the cold but stable peace with Cairo – is now dangerously fragile. Will the domino effect spread? Will Jordan, the only other neighboring Arab country with whom we have signed a peace treaty (in October 1994), soon be engulfed in its own popular uprising?
Skeptics doubt it. True, on the past few Fridays since the Jasmine Revolution ousted Ben Ali, thousands of Jordan’s mosque-goers have taken to the streets after prayers in protest of high prices and other economic grievances, while security forces have basically stood by, watching without attempting to disperse them. Nevertheless, unlike Egypt, where Mubarak has been singled out for ousting, frustration in Jordan has been vented primarily against the government.
Even though it is widely known that King Abdullah II and a small group of his advisers make the real decisions, disgruntled Jordanians have been allowed to blow off steam in a semblance of free speech and assembly while refraining from directly criticizing the king, an act punishable by law.
Also, Abdullah has been sagaciously responsive. On Tuesday, the king moved to defuse the potentially explosive situation by sacking Prime Minister Samir Rifai. Rifai was sworn into office just over a month ago after last year’s controversial November 9 election. A paltry 53-percent voter turnout was attributed to a boycott by the Islamic Action Front – Jordan’s powerful Islamist party, affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood – and general apathy.
DESPITE HOPE of change when the Western-educated Abdullah, 49, became king in 1999 after his father’s passing, gerrymandering and favoritism continue to give disproportionate representation to sparsely populated rural areas, to the detriment of cities, where most of Jordan’s approximately six million people live. The setup favors tribal candidates, who generally support government policies, over liberal and Islamic opposition politicians concentrated in urban areas. A vote cast in Amman, for instance, carries only a fourth of the weight of one cast in the dusty, rural town of Ma’an.
Now, the king, reluctantly persuaded by the scenes in Tunisia and Egypt, seems serious about reform. He told Marouf Bakhit, a former ambassador to Israel tapped by the king to replace Rifai as prime minister, that his main task would be to “take quick, concrete and practical steps to launch a genuine political reform process.”
The move also seemed to represent partial acquiescence to a demand made earlier this week by the Islamic Action Front that the present government resign and that an electoral law be amended to facilitate a democratically elected prime minister. The Front’s secretary-general Hamzeh Mansur made it clear during a meeting with the government that “there is no comparison between Egypt and Jordan. The people there demand a regime change, but here we ask for political reforms and an elected government.”
Abdullah is now faced with tough choices. Instituting true electoral reforms would pit him against his political allies, reluctant to give up their privileged status. It would also risk bringing Islamists to power, just as the 2006 Palestinian elections brought Hamas to power on the other side of the Jordan River.
If, on the other hand, Abdullah attempts to present lofty-sounding reforms with no real content, he might soon face the type of turmoil currently rocking Egypt. Jordanians, like their Egyptian and Tunisian brothers, are fed up with the corruption that seems to pervade those close to Abdullah’s regime. Al-Jazeera, on the offensive against autocratic Arab leaders like Abdullah, is helping to fan the flames of dissent. Meanwhile, the disenfranchised masses of Palestinians, including hundreds of thousands living in Jordanian refugee camps, have so far remained quiet on the whole. If they were to mobilize against Abdullah, it would have grave consequences.
There are a lot of wild cards in Abdullah’s deck. The Egyptian precedent, which surprised the world – experts no less than everyone else – is a lesson in humility about guessing the future in the Middle East.