Amid Arab protests, resentment builds in Jordanian town

Motivated by recent shows of political strength by neighbors in Egypt, people in the Middle East and North Africa are taking to the streets of many cities to rally for change.
By Joel Greenberg
Wednesday, March 9, 2011; 3:34 AM

MA'AN, JORDAN - In this bleak desert town in southern Jordan, discontent swirls in living room conversations and on the gritty streets.

A tribal center known for its defiance of central authority, this community of 50,000, plagued by poverty and high unemployment, feels remote from Amman, the capital, 130 miles away. Resentment is rife here now, fueled by the unrest across the Arab world that has sparked protests in Jordan and demands for sweeping political reforms.

Calls to limit the powers of King Abdullah II, who wields supreme authority and rules by decree, have unsettled the monarchy, which has long counted on the support of Bedouin tribes that have formed the backbone of the regime.

As opposition demonstrations have gathered steam in recent weeks, pledges of loyalty to the monarch by tribes and other groups have been featured prominently in the state-controlled press and displayed on banners in the streets.

But in Ma'an, where anti-government riots have erupted in the past, the talk is different.

"The leaders in the region are dummy rulers installed by outside powers, and the one here is no different," said Sheikh Adel Mahamid, the leader of a local tribe. "The loyalty pledges are not real, and the applause is a show. Kings come and go. My concern is for the country."

The problem, the sheikh said, is that "the king holds all the authority in his hand. He can dismiss the government and dissolve parliament. His authority should be limited."

That view was echoed in other conversations in which people said that Abdullah, who has broad executive powers, should be held accountable.

"If you deal with details, you should be answerable," said Saleh Abu Taweleh, a local activist, who said he wants a constitutional monarchy similar to the British model, in which the king would wield mostly ceremonial powers as the head of state.

The idea has been promoted by some opposition leaders, but it was dismissed last week by new Prime Minister Marouf al-Bakhit, an appointee of the king, who told parliament that such a step would "affect the balance of Jordan's political system."

Still, pressure is mounting for changes that would produce a cabinet drawn from the parliamentary majority rather than from the king's appointment of the prime minister. And there are other calls to roll back constitutional amendments passed over the years that have granted the monarch additional powers.

"He has absolute authority in all matters," Abu Taweleh said. "But the people are the source of authority, which should come from below. He should reign, but not govern."

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