By Janine Zacharia
Friday, August 20, 2010; A14
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.
In May, a group of retired military officers issued a public six-point complaint about the government that stunned many because of its bluntness. It criticized privatization, and it reflected a growing paranoia among Jordanian-born nationals that the United States, Israel and Jordan are concocting a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that will offer Jordanian citizenship to more Palestinians.
"We will not accept under any condition or in any form, any solution to the Palestinian question at Jordan's expense," Abdullah said in his June speech.
Amid this mounting discontent, Jordan is planning to hold parliamentary elections in November after Abdullah's dismissal of the legislature last year. The largest political party, the Islamic Action Front, is boycotting along with other smaller groups.
Jordan's autocratic trends led the non-governmental group Freedom House to downgrade it from "partially free" to "not free."
Rights activists deplored the crackdown on workers such as Muhammad al-Sunaid, 34, who was fired after demanding better pay for government-employed day laborers. He was sentenced in a military court to three months in jail in part for insulting an official after asking why he was fired.
This summer, teachers expressed dissatisfaction with low wages by holding a 70-mile protest march, something unheard of in Jordan. Fifteen teachers who led the push to unionize were fired. "We have no unions and teachers live in poverty," said Mustapha Rawashdeh, one of the teachers' organizers who lost his job. Dissatisfaction with Jordan's leaders among the people, he said, "has reached new heights.''
And in Jerash, which gets the lowest share of water per capita in Jordan, residents openly complained last week about shortages.
One of the most brazen restrictions introduced this year affects online media .
Whereas Abdullah made affordable Internet access a priority -- and Queen Rania has more than a million followers on Twitter -- Jordan passed a provisional cyberspace law this month that Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said creates a "legislative arsenal that can be used to punish those whose posts upset the authorities." Penalties range from fines to forced labor.
In a letter Tuesday to Abdullah, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said the law could be used to harass online media and undermined "Jordan's image as a free and open society."
Jordanian officials say the cyberspace law was necessary because private investors demanded regulations to limit pornography and other offenses.
Still, one senior Jordanian government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said with regard to the news Web sites, "we would like professional journalism. A lot of them deal in slander. People's freedom ends when it infringes on other people's freedom."
Only one site, Allofjo.net, carried the retired military officers' statement in full.
Even though the Web site was hacked four times, it still carries articles that upset the government. Its two main writers say they keep bags packed for the possible eventuality that they will be arrested once the cyberspace law formally takes effect.