Adm. Mullen, U.S. diplomat visit Jordan, urge reform in wake of Egypt uprising

By Joel Greenberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 13, 2011; 11:59 PM

AMMAN, JORDAN - An American diplomatic envoy and the top-ranking U.S. military officer paid separate visits to Jordan over the weekend to show support for King Abdullah II - and to prod him toward speedy political reforms in the aftermath of the uprising in Egypt that toppled another key ally of Washington.

William J. Burns, U.S. undersecretary of political affairs and a former ambassador to Jordan, met the king and his newly appointed prime minister, Marouf al-Bakhit, "to support Jordan's program of reform and help it keep ahead of the unrest in the region," said a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly on the discussions.

The State Department said Burns "emphasized the strong, long-term American commitment to the well-being of Jordan" and "underscored American support for a sustained, serious and comprehensive program of political and economic reform."

Pressured by unrest across the Arab world and street demonstrations at home by Jordanians angered by price increases and alleged government corruption, Abdullah replaced the prime minister this month and ordered speedy action to reform Jordan's political system and economy.

The United States is urging Abdullah to take tangible steps now to address public grievances, a lesson learned from the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, whose offers of concessions to protesters were rejected as too little, too late.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, met separately with Abdullah on Sunday before continuing on to Israel, where there is worry that a new Egyptian government could be far less friendly than Mubarak's regime. A Pentagon spokesman said before Mullen's trip that it was meant to "reassure both these key partners of the U.S. military's commitment to that partnership."

The shock waves from Mubarak's fall have unsettled the Jordanian leadership, which is facing increasing public discontent. So far, however, the criticism has not been leveled directly at the monarchy, widely seen as a unifying force that has given Jordan stability and security.

"There is growing criticism of the king's policies," said Labib Kamhawi, a political analyst. "No one wants to see a change in the regime as such."

Still, the authorities have in recent days shown heightened sensitivity to foreign media coverage of discontent in the kingdom.

In a rare step, the royal court published a statement last week condemning as "defamatory" a news story written by the Amman bureau chief of Agence France-Presse, Randa Habib. The story cited a letter, signed by 36 members of Bedouin tribes, that called for wide-ranging reforms and directly criticized Abdullah's wife, Queen Rania.

The tribes are normally a bedrock of support for the monarchy, but the letter alleged that the queen was interfering in the affairs of state, and it denounced a birthday celebration for her in September in the scenic desert area of Wadi Rum in southern Jordan as a lavish excess "at the expense of the treasury and the poor."

The palace statement called the allegations unfounded and threatened legal action against the agency and Habib.

The Web site Ammon News, an alternative to government-controlled newspapers, was hacked and the letter by the tribesmen removed after a telephone warning from the authorities that the declaration was "against the national interest" and unrepresentative of popular opinion, said Basil Okoor, the site's managing editor. The site was then taken down for a few hours, but it was restored after dozens of journalists and supporters gathered to protest outside the building of the local journalists association.

A Washington Post correspondent was turned back at a border crossing from Israel into Jordan on Saturday after being questioned at length by police and intelligence officers about reporting plans. A police officer said prior permission had to be obtained from the Jordanian Ministry of Information through the Jordanian embassy in Israel. The decision was later reversed after contacts with American and senior Jordanian officials.

Ayman Safadi, a former government spokesman with links to the royal court, gave assurances that barring journalists was not government policy, though other foreign journalists have been similarly questioned about their coverage plans at the border crossing and at the official Jordanian press office in Amman in recent days.

Foreign media coverage of Jordan has also been denounced in the local press. One column last week in the government-controlled Al-Rai newspaper criticized American media for what the writer called "the exaggerated focus on the internal elements of instability in Arab societies" while neglecting "American-Israeli policies and their role in creating" such unrest.

Along with the signs of unease with outside media scrutiny, Abdullah has moved domestically to widen the circle of political dialogue, meeting last week with representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood, the main opposition movement.

A Western diplomat said that the king had so far staved off the serious unrest that has swept other countries in the region and that the monarchy remained stable.

"I don't see it tipping over anytime soon," he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Yet a crowd of youthful Jordanians celebrating outside the Egyptian embassy on the night Mubarak stepped down had a different message.

"Arab revolution, from Marrakesh to Bahrain!" they chanted to a deafening drumbeat. "They're scared! They're scared of the people's revolt!" Special correspondent Ranya Kadri contributed to this report.

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