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."
In economically depressed Ma'an, where there is a strong sense of neglect by the authorities, accusations of corruption in the government and the royal court are widespread - and are indirect criticisms of the king. Direct denunciation of the monarch is banned in Jordan and can carry a prison term of up to three years.
"The king has surrounded himself with a bunch of thieves who are looking out for their personal business interests and don't care about the interests of the ordinary citizen," said Akram Kreishan, a local human rights advocate.
Queen Rania, a glamorous ambassador for Jordan abroad, is accused of interfering in official appointments and of receiving foreign funding for foundations and projects that she allegedly runs without public oversight. Government ministers and other top officials are accused of personally profiting from the sale of state-owned enterprises and passing on their positions to relatives, keeping them in the hands of a group of well-connected families.
Abu Taweleh complained that Ma'an has been left behind and that it lacks basic facilities such as a sports stadium, public parks and a theater.
But Majed Sharari, a tribal mediator, said that despite the grievances, a strong bond remains between the local tribes and the ruling Hashemite family. "They are a symbol and ensure stability in the country," he said, adding that their removal would lead to a damaging "power struggle" in Jordan.
Mahamid, the tribal leader, said he too feared civil strife between the nation's large Palestinian population and East Bank Jordanians, as well as between northern and southern tribes, if the monarchy were overthrown.
"My fear is, where is the alternative?" he said, adding, "We want peaceful change."
At a junction off Ma'an's shabby main street, lined with scruffy shops and produce stands, a faded monument carries a hopeful slogan: "Unity, freedom, a better life." For many here, that will only happen when they feel more like citizens than subjects.
"Change is coming," Abu Taweleh said. "Reform is inevitable."
Greenberg is a special correspondent.