“Even to criticize a small aspect of a policy leads to arrest and abuses by the security services,” said Prince Hamzeh in a video he recorded. “It’s reached the point where no one is able to speak or express an opinion on anything without being bullied, arrested, harassed and threatened.” After mediation, on Monday, he pledged loyalty to the king, but his words still resonated.
That critique will be uncontroversial for any close observer of Jordan, a country of 10 million strategically positioned between Israel, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. In more than 21 years of rule, King Abdullah has grown steadily less tolerant of dissent. The latest report by Freedom House downgraded the country to “not free” from “partly free,” citing “harsh new restrictions on freedom of assembly, a crackdown on the teachers union following a series of strikes and protests, and factors including a lack of adequate preparations that harmed the quality of parliamentary elections during the covid-19 pandemic.”
Yet both Jordan’s biggest benefactor, the United States, and neighboring states including Israel and Saudi Arabia rushed to express support for the regime on Sunday. “King Abdullah is a key partner of the United States, and he has our full support,” said a State Department spokesman.
No one wants to see another Middle Eastern state descend into political turmoil. Still, it’s striking that, faced with a stagnant, corrupt and increasingly repressive Arab regime, the United States continues to place a premium on maintaining the status quo. Like Egypt, another U.S. ally ruled by an incompetent dictatorship, Jordan desperately needs to pursue the economic and political reforms that King Abdullah promised, and toyed with, when he first came to power. Instead, he has moved in the opposite direction. One of the most prominent figures arrested was Bassem Awadallah, a former cabinet minister known for his longtime advocacy of political liberalization.
Maybe Israel or Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has ties to Mr. Awadallah, has been meddling in Jordanian politics. But Prince Hamzeh, who is popular among some of the Jordanian tribes that are the backbone of the regime, appears to be reflecting genuine and widespread discontent. Rather than arrest him and his allies, King Abdullah ought to be considering how he can open space for more debate and more legitimate political activity. And rather than blindly support the ruler, the Biden administration and other Western democracies ought to be telling him, quietly but firmly, that the repressive status quo is unsustainable.