AMMAN, Jordan — King Abdullah of Jordan’s suggestion that Bashar al-Assad step down took many by surprise Monday. Not only was he the first Arab leader to call for regime change in neighboring Syria, but his message came as he faced growing pressure for reform in his own small but strategically important country.
Although the monarch fired the government last month and called for credible parliamentary polls as early as next year, some increasingly vocal opponents claim change is stymied by widespread corruption, unfair electoral laws and efforts by the intelligence services to undermine political parties.
The deepening argument has raised new questions about both the king’s willingness to share power and the stability of Jordan, an important Western ally that saw protests early in this year’s Arab awakening and is now seeing once-taboo criticism of the king break into the open.
Jordanians and foreign observers say protests have become more assertive since the end of the Ramadan fast in late August, with thousands gathering in downtown Amman last month in anger at what they claimed was “slow” and “bogus” reform.
Few Jordanian or foreign observers think the political temperature will be cooled much by the king’s appointment late last month of Awn Al-Khasawneh, a former judge at the International Court of Justice, the U.N.’s highest court, as the fourth prime minister in four years.
Khasawneh is respected for his intellect and integrity, but critics say he is politically inexperienced and employs a degree of self-deprecation — such as publicly announcing his lack of knowledge of economics — that strays beyond the charming into the self-defeating.
One diplomat said Jordan’s restiveness meant the honeymoon for Khasawneh’s government would “not be very long at all,” adding of the new prime minister: “He spends a lot of time telling you what he doesn’t know and can’t do. Which is fair enough — but not very good at building confidence.”
Jordan’s political fate will have a geopolitical impact that far outstrips the weight of its population of 6 million. As a staunch Western ally in a turbulent region, it is the recipient of what critics say is an unhealthy amount of foreign financial assistance and is one of only two Arab countries to have signed a peace treaty with Israel.
King Abdullah still has support among Jordanians and is not facing calls to step down, but he is the target of pointed questions over whether he is sincere about shaking up the system when he has failed to do so previously during his near 13-year reign.
Although the monarch — who has a British mother and is a polished performer on the international stage — presents himself as worldly and in favor of constitutional democracy, his country still retains laws that restrict free speech and stymie political parties by in effect capping the number of seats they can win.
Despite the king’s reform promises, activists claim state agents are physically targeting political opponents and are threatening to wreck the careers of other activists and their families.
Bashar Rawashdeh, who runs a laboratory equipment supply business, said he had been shut out of government contracts because of his political activism and had been the target of a sting in which state agents sent an attractive young woman to his office to try to compromise him.
Activists’ fears about the security services being out of control have found a wider echo, including in the royal court itself. The king has appointed a new intelligence chief, and there is talk of trying to reform the agency with British help.
Amid rising discontent about unemployment and the economic damage caused by the effect of the Arab awakening, some observers detect other, potentially sinister trends in Jordan’s politics, including a hardening of positions in the perennial love-hate relationship between self-styled “pure Jordanians” — or “East Bankers” — and “West Banker” Palestinian immigrants.
Royal court members and other state officials insist the king is not only in control but is relishing this opportunity to put in place changes that vested interests have long prevented him from making. One minister said: “We are very blessed in Jordan. We have an enlightened leadership that has been ahead of the curve and has preempted the demands.”
But whether King Abdullah is ahead or behind the curve right now, many think he will have to move fast if he is not to run out of time.