Jordanians demand change

They may not be demanding regime change, but Jordanians will not be content with mere cosmetic changes.

Jordan protests 2
Jordanians are demanding reform, but stopping short of the demands made by others in the region [GALLO/GETTY]

Jordanians want change: They are not seeking regime change but fundamental changes in the regime.

At the protests that have been taking place across the country every Friday for the past six weeks there is a near consensus that the Hashemite monarchy, which has ruled the country since 1921, must be reformed.

The protesters are not raising slogans against the king, but they are challenging the reach of his powers.

Opposition demands have ranged from changing a flawed electoral law to the disbanding of a questionably elected parliament and the establishment of a constitutional monarchy where the king becomes a head of state with no powers over the executive branch.

Promises of a new era

King Abdullah, who succeeded his father, the late King Hussein, in 1999, has responded by sacking the unpopular government of Samir Rifai and by meeting with major opposition groups. At the meetings, including a first with the influential Muslim Brotherhood, the king promised a new era and expressed his readiness to address the grievances and demands of the people.

According to those who met him, the king appeared to have understood the message sent by the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions – that Arab leaders can no longer remain shielded from rising popular anger.

“He took us by surprise. He was intent on listening to our criticism and demands. He also sounded enthusiastic about change,” an opposition leader told me, explaining that the king appeared to understand that real reforms were key to sustaining the regime.

Jordanians, partly fearing reprisals by the security services, have tried over the years to limit their criticisms to the government, steering away from directly, or even indirectly, criticising the king. But the current crisis has changed this, with many Jordanian opposition figures crossing the traditional red line and critiquing the palace itself.

In an open letter to the king, Leith Shbeilat, an independent Islamist, warned that while the country remained loyal to the monarch, systematic changes would be necessary to stop the brewing storm.

Such a warning, couched in more cautious words by some political parties, has not been heard since the 1950s when leftist and pan-Arabist opposition challenged the rule of the Hashemites, who they considered to be too pro-Western.

But Jordan has changed since those times. In 1989, the late King Hussein restored parliamentary life and later lifted martial law which had been in place for three decades, paving the way for the legalisation of political parties and the easing of restrictions on freedom of expression.

King Hussein’s reforms followed a limited but serious uprising, triggered by sudden price rises as a result of an International Monetary Fund (IMF) directed suspension of fuel subsidies, which shook the bedrock of Hashemite support in the south of the country.

A new phase of openness and political freedom followed, but the reforms were incomplete and left restrictive laws in place, while allowing the security and intelligence agencies to maintain a firm grip on the country.

Granted, passports are no longer confiscated from activists, but the influence of the security forces remains far-reaching and they are, at times, intrusive.

Loss of confidence

It must be noted that in an attempt to defuse rising resentment over economic policies and the repression of dissent, the palace ensured that the security forces did not attempt to disperse recent protests, despite the existence of a law restricting such gatherings.

However, the violent disruption of a protest in downtown Amman last Friday by unknown persons in civilian clothing has raised concerns that some at the centre of power are resisting calls for reform. The scene was reminiscent of Egypt’s ‘day of wrath’ when government-paid thugs and undercover police officers attacked protesters demanding the resignation of Hosni Mubarak. Armed with sticks, and under the watchful eye of the Jordanian police, the thugs assaulted peaceful protesters, injuring a number of activists.

The government of Marouf Bakhit, the new Jordanian prime minister, has ordered an investigation into the incident. This will be a major credibility test for the new cabinet, which includes a number of respected faces with a track record of support for political and press freedoms.

Many Jordanians appear to be giving the cabinet the chance to carry out reforms, although suspicions remain that the steps promised, including lifting the conditional permit required for public gatherings, will be insufficient to restore the credibility of the government.

Although there is a long history of popular demand for the expansion of political freedoms, the current crisis reflects a real loss of popular confidence in the state. Neo-liberal economic policies, including those that led to price hikes, have angered large segments of the population, who feel that government institutions have for too long been dominated by the interests of a corrupt business elite.

The Israel factor

There is also a strong rejection of the 1994 Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty, which includes stipulations of economic partnership and security coordination.

Hussein Mjali, the new Jordanian justice minister, has already provoked the ire of Israel by calling for the release of a Jordanian soldier who killed Israeli schoolgirls in 1997. Activists have launched campaigns and Facebook pages in support of the justice minister, arguing that Israeli soldiers remain immune to the crimes they commit against the Palestinians.

What is more striking, however, is that Mjali was not dismissed, indicating that the palace is keenly aware of the strong anti-Israeli sentiments felt across all segments of Jordanian society – rich and poor, Jordanian East Bankers and those of Palestinian descent alike.

In fact, Jordanian East Bankers have been more vocal in demanding a review of the agreement with Israel, and a group of retired army officers has already urged the king to deal with Israel as an enemy of the country.

Popular anger against Israel is a reaction to the failure of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations to produce an independent Palestinian state and a concern that Israeli policies will lead to the establishment of a substitute homeland for the Palestinians in Jordan. At least half of the Jordanian population are of Palestinian origin and many fear that Israel will force Palestinians to move to Jordan, in an attempt to make room for more illegal Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

If anything, concern that the collapse of the regime might allow Israel to exploit the subsequent power vacuum has worked in the palace’s favour. But, the threat posed by Israel is also a strong motivator for the opposition, which is seeking reforms that will safeguard the country from its neighbour.

Encouraged by the success of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, Jordanians are determined to maintain the pressure on their ruler to ensure that the regime undertakes radical changes that will allow for power-sharing. Unlike leaders of other Arab countries, the Jordanian king has not been faced with calls for regime change. But, Jordanian anger cannot be placated by a few cosmetic changes. The king may have to cede some executive powers in order to restore confidence in the state. The barometer of discontent is rising and, if the king does not act, worsening economic conditions and political suppression could see peaceful protests turn into a large scale popular movement.

Lamis Andoni is an analyst and commentator on Middle Eastern and Palestinian affairs.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.