New restrictions provoke unusually strong wave of criticism among Jordanians

Jordanian police survey the scene of rioting in the capital in November after a mob protesting the death of a man allegedly at the hands of police went on a rampage. In Jordan, any protest directed at the government is unusual.
Jordanian police survey the scene of rioting in the capital in November after a mob protesting the death of a man allegedly at the hands of police went on a rampage. In Jordan, any protest directed at the government is unusual. (Khalil Mazraawi/agence France-presse Via Getty Images)

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By Janine Zacharia
Friday, August 20, 2010

AMMAN, JORDAN -- Jordan's King Abdullah II, one of the United States' most Western-oriented allies in the Middle East, has faced an unusual amount of domestic criticism in recent months that has coincided with a trend toward more autocratic governance, observers say.

In what many describe as a period of exceptional dourness, retired military officers, journalists, teachers and government workers have publicly complained about the direction Jordan is heading. Because overtly criticizing the king remains taboo, much of the grumbling is directed by proxy at the government appointed by Abdullah.

Some critics predicted that the disenchantment could feed instability in Jordan, which has proved to be one of the most reliable U.S. partners in the region.

For now, steps taken by the government to restrict freedoms have blistered Abdullah's reputation as an enlightened reformer and fueled a surprising amount of discontent among the monarchy's traditional backers.

The domestic challenge comes as Jordan's relevance in the region has dwindled. Because of its peace treaty with Israel, Jordan grew accustomed to being a mediator with the Palestinians. But Abdullah has little influence over the militant group Hamas, whose rapprochement with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas could be key to any Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement.

With Jordan's regional role in decline, domestic disgruntlement has become pronounced. Some appears driven by privatization and subsidy cuts that have hurt vast numbers of government employees as Abdullah tries to transform the aid-dependent desert kingdom of 6 million into a regional commercial hub.

Despite these efforts, the World Bank ranked Jordan 100th out of 183 countries this year in terms of ease of doing business, behind Yemen.

Lucrative sales of government-controlled land that don't seem to have enriched Jordan's coffers have prompted corruption complaints. Officials, citing a tripling of economic growth in the past decade, say the scope of alleged corruption is exaggerated.

Lavish vacations in the south of France and motorcycle trips through California have made the 48-year-old king appear out of touch with poor, average Jordanians, political observers said. But in a June speech marking the 11th anniversary of his ascendance to the throne, Abdullah addressed people's concerns.

"Ample talk about corruption, nepotism and favoritism" is "overblown," Abdullah said. He asked for patience as his newly appointed government works to fix the economy.

"Jordan now really is in the balance," said Labib Kamhawi, a political analyst in Amman. "People are now doubtful about Jordan," he added, predicting the criticism could lead to an "explosion."

It's not that Jordanians haven't had gripes in the past. What's new, observers say, is the willingness to openly pass judgment on the "system," a euphemism for the king. Criticizing the king is punishable by up to three years in prison, while slandering a government official carries a penalty of up to one year.


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