Protests in Jordan persist, but change is slow


While the protests in Jordan have been small by comparision to some of the countries in the region, government critics on the left and the right of Jordanian society have been growing in numbers. (Spencer Platt/GETTY IMAGES)
July 22, 2011

At the weekly anti-government demonstration after Friday prayers here in Jordan’s capital, Malik Gheith held up a poster showing a caricature of a fearsome-looking policeman wielding a club, captioned, “Your dignity ends here.”

The message, a week after police beat peaceful protesters and journalists at a similar march in downtown Amman, was clear. “There can’t be any political reform with repression,” Gheith said. “The security forces have to stop their brutality.”

Friday’s march ended without incident, as unarmed police officers flanked the protesters, preventing any contact with a small group of pro-government demonstrators nearby. Riot police, responsible for last week’s beatings, were nowhere to be seen, and newspaper headlines highlighted King Abdullah II’s condemnation of their assaults on reporters.

After six months of weekly demonstrations inspired by the Arab Spring, Jordan’s ferment is still a managed crisis, festering but not at a tipping point, with protesters unable to generate momentum to force swift change.

The opposition is divided between youth groups and leftists on one hand and the Muslim Brotherhood on the other. The Brotherhood is perceived by its potential allies as angling for a greater piece of the government pie, rather than seeking fundamental change.

Movement toward political change has been slow, with the king promising broader public participation, such as governments based on the parliamentary majority rather than royal appointment. But little has been done to carry out those pledges, aside from a recent cabinet reshuffle widely viewed as cosmetic.

In a speech last month, the king said it would take as long as three years for mature political parties to emerge.

“After what we saw in Tunis, Egypt and Yemen, we’re surprised that in six months we haven’t been able to achieve anything,” said Islam Samhan, a member of a pro-reform coalition who was at Friday’s demonstration. “The king has not responded to the demands of the people.”

Yet that frustration has not produced calls for the overthrow of the monarchy, widely seen as the only glue that can hold together a potentially volatile mix of Palestinians and East Bank Jordanians, fractious Bedouin tribes and other groups.

Friday’s protest focused on accusations of government corruption and the sale of state assets, including industries and real estate, to private companies and businessmen. Along with the familiar calls for the ouster of Prime Minister Marouf al-Bakhit, there was a new refrain directed at the king. “Abdullah, son of Hussein,” it went, “where is the land, where?”

And in a twist on the traditional cry of support for the monarch, the crowd shouted, “Long live the Jordanian people!”

Khalid Kalaldeh, a leader of a leftist party, said that the work of a national dialogue committee he had served on had stalled after its recommendations for changes in the election law and laws governing political parties were held up by the government, pending constitutional amendments.

“The impression is that the government is only playing for time,” Kalaldeh said.

Abdullah has tried to defuse discontent by visiting neglected areas of the kingdom and pledging government funds and development programs, as well as ordering direct assistance to poor families. But protesters have said they want more than royal gifts; they want a change in a government culture seen as rife with cronyism and nepotism.

“Down with the government! Enough hereditary appointments. Enough marginalization,” shouted a group of demonstrators Friday. The group was from an Amman neighborhood populated by people from Tafileh, a restive town in the south.

Amer Sabaileh, a political scientist at the University of Jordan, called the king’s paternalistic style an anachronism. “These types of visits belong to another era, when the Ottoman ruler would bring gifts to the people,” he said. “That is over. People are judging concrete issues, and there need to be more transparent channels of connecting directly to the people and taking them seriously.”

Government officials argue that Abdullah has committed himself to reform and has not used his security forces to brutally put down the pro-democracy demonstrations, as has happened in some other Arab countries. “This is an evolution, and what is important is that it is change without chaos. Not a single shot has been fired,” said Nasser Judeh, the foreign minister. “The tone is being set from above. Reform is led by the king.”

But the continuing protests in Amman and elsewhere in the kingdom, especially in tribal areas in the south, show that many Jordanians remain unconvinced. And while the demonstrations have not crossed the line of calling for the king’s ouster, some participants caution that they could escalate if reform efforts remain stalled.

“We cannot control the street,” said Su’ud al-Ajarma, one of a group of 36 tribal figures who published an open call for reform in February. “It can erupt at any moment.”

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