Political Islam's Opportunity in Jordan

By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 13, 2006

AMMAN, Jordan -- In line with the speedy evolution in three nearby countries, Islam as a political force is moving to center stage in Jordan, where the government is a cooperative U.S. ally but where Muslim activists are cool both to Washington and Israel.

The path to greater influence and perhaps dominant political power may be through municipal elections that are supposed to take place this year and balloting for parliament in 2007, independent political observers say. However, rules for each vote have yet to be set, and the conditions will go a long way in revealing how quickly the country's ruler, King Abdullah, is willing to democratize in the face of the Islamic surge.

On Sunday, police briefly detained dozens of activists from Jordan's only legal Muslim party, the Islamic Action Front, who were handing out leaflets to protest rising fuel prices. The leaflets called for shops to close, but the response was negligible.

In any event, the blossoming of Islamic parties in Iraq, the success of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood in parliamentary elections last year and, most of all, the recent victory by Hamas in Palestinian legislative elections have convinced leaders of the Islamic Action Front that it can aspire to power here. "We not only have the right to participate in elections, but to form a government if we win," said Zaki Saad, the party leader. "Political Islam is a big part of the Arab people, so we represent a wide spectrum of Jordanians."

Saad predicted that if his party were to achieve a dominant place in government, Jordan's relations with both the United States and Israel would change. Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994. "We are clear," Saad said. "We reject this treaty because it is against Jordan's national interest. But we will move cautiously. We will ask for a referendum on it."

As for Washington, he said, "We have no problem to open dialogue, but in Jordan's interest."

Such attitudes are in harmony with the Middle East's other emergent Islamic movements and reflect one of the risks in President Bush's drive to democratize the region: the stronger the Islamic parties, the greater the threat of upending pro-American alliances.

Jordan would appear to have a lot to lose by distancing itself from Washington. It receives U.S. economic aid and signed a free-trade agreement in 2000 that has bolstered the economy and investment. But many Jordanians have suffered from other aspects of U.S. policy, analysts point out.

The war in Iraq has disrupted favorable trade relations between Iraq and Jordan, particularly the oil that Jordan had received at heavily discounted prices during the rule of Saddam Hussein. A perception that Iraq's Sunni Muslims, with whom most Jordanians are co-religionists, lost out in the U.S.-led invasion has also soured opinion here.

Moreover, Palestinians make up about half of Jordan's nearly 6 million people and are heavily represented in the Islamic Action Front. By and large, they consider U.S. policy toward Israel harmful to their kin in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The party sympathizes with Hamas, formally known as the Islamic Resistance Movement, which the United States and European Union have labeled a terrorist organization. "We have a special feeling for Hamas in the face of the Zionist project," Saad said.

The party's precise strength is difficult to gauge, although it is already the biggest force in parliament, with 17 seats out of 110. Analysts agree that it is Jordan's best-organized party and potentially the biggest electoral juggernaut, if only because the country's 32 other parties are in disarray. "This is the usual pattern in the Middle East. The Islamists are strong by default," said Nabib Kamhawi, a political analyst and human rights activist.

Parliament is set to consider changes to the municipal election laws this spring that would make all town hall positions elected. A change under consideration for next year's parliamentary vote would end quotas for such groups as Christians and tribes and let voters choose from lists of candidates in a system Jordanians have labeled "one man, one vote."

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