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A tough balancing act for Jordan

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Thursday, February 24, 2011

AMMAN, JORDAN

Jordanians are clamoring for reform these days, like everyone else in the Arab world, but what they mean depends partly on which side of the Jordan River their ancestors hail from. Yet both sides look to the Hashemite monarchy for protection, which is one reason it's still standing amid the hurricane that's blowing through the neighborhood.

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When Jordanians of Palestinian descent talk about reform, they usually mean freer expression, less bureaucracy and more representation for their community, which makes up about half of Jordan's population. For many East Bankers, in contrast, reform means rolling back privatization (which they identify with corruption), more power for the army and the government, and limits on more Palestinian citizenship and voting.

There have been street protests here over the past several weeks by young reformers. Meanwhile, retired military officers (drawn from the old guard of the East Bank) have protested what they see as improper deals for the business elite and other problems.

In the middle stands King Abdullah II, leaning this way and that as he tries to ride the wave of change. He depends on the entrepreneurial Palestinian business elite for Jordan's economic growth; but he needs the army, dominated by the Bedouin tribes of the East Bank, for security. This balancing act has allowed the Hashemite monarchy to survive for 90 years, through civil wars, assassination attempts and regional mayhem.

Around the royal palace, people speak of "Meds" and "Beds" - referring to the worldly Mediterranean outlook of the Palestinians and the traditional values of the Bedouin tribes of the East Bank. One young Amman resident complains that people here always ask where someone is from. He muses that he should start a Facebook protest page called "We want to be Jordanians."

Even King Abdullah seems to think that in this moment of Arab revolution, the middle of the road may be a dangerous place to be. He has talked about moving Jordan over the next three years toward a true constitutional monarchy - with a few real political parties and a prime minister who's elected by parliament, rather than appointed by the palace.

King Abdullah and Queen Rania are the West's idea of what Arab leaders should look like: They're young, smart and attractive, and they speak perfect English. They campaign for women's rights and broadband Internet connectivity. They frequent conferences such as Davos on a perpetual road show to drum up Western investment for their poor, resource-limited country.

This very success in Western eyes raises eyebrows at home. Queen Rania has become a lightning rod for East Bank critics who think she's too vocal and independent (and too Palestinian, which is her family's ancestry) to be a proper Arab queen. Abdullah, too, is criticized by some as too Western. The royal couple have the vices of their virtues: The more they plug into the global grid, the more they risk unplugging from the local one.

Abdullah's greatest test may be the rumors about corruption that swirl around Amman. The Jordanian capital is a city of courtiers, passing around gossip about the leading personalities here. The queen's stylish tastes and cover-girl looks add to the intense focus on her.

Gen. Ali Habashaneh, a retired brigade commander and one of the leaders of the retired officers movement, said in an interview that because of deals made under privatization, Jordan's debt over the past 10 years has grown from $5 billion to nearly $15 billion. He charged that some of these deals, especially big real estate ventures, were improper. As for Queen Rania, he complained that she had been pushing for more women in the bureaucracy, including even the intelligence service. "The constant local media appearances make people think she is a partner," he complained. To the Bedouins, that's unacceptable.

Abdullah tried to address the jumble of complaints in a speech Sunday: "Many issues are being raised. Some are true, some are exaggerated, and others are untrue. There is talk about corruption, there is wasta and favoritism, there is talk about failed institutions, about privatization, whether it been a success or a failure." He said he had instructed a new Anti-Corruption Commission to investigate charges, and he's thinking of adding a new panel to oversee the investigators.

Jordan has its problems, and King Abdullah could use a little more of the common touch of his father, King Hussein. He wants to get out ahead of his problems before they get any worse. But he also needs to stay in the political middle, balancing the old guard and the new reformers, and that's a tricky straddle.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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