In Power 40 Years, King Hussein Strives for a Democratic Jordan

The monarch has placated his political opponents through inclusion

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

AT the 40th anniversary of his rule, King Hussein of Jordan is building the foundations of a modern Arab society and attempting to unite a traditional Islamic identity with democratic freedoms.

If successful, Jordan's experiment could prove a model of stability for the Arab world at a time of rising Islamic activism and popular discontent with economic decline and government corruption throughout the region.

But the longest-reigning Arab leader acknowledges publicly that time is short. He hopes to build a democratic system that would survive threats from anti-reformists long after his rule.

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"King Hussein is racing with time in building democratic and civil institutions to turn Jordan into a modern state," says Munis Razzaz, head of the newly formed leftist Jordanian Arab Democractic Party. "And if there are threats to the democracy in the future, there will be safety valves to protect it."

Those safety valves - written into Jordan's National Charter since riots in 1989 prompted a process of democratization - include legalized freedoms of expression and press, free elections and popular participation in government, and legalized opposition parties and labor unions.

Jordan celebrated the 40th anniversary of Hussein's assumption of constitutional powers May 2 with a colorful, two-hour military parade. Large banners in the background read: "Forty years with Hussein on the road to freedom, democracy, and development."

Hussein was only 18 when he inherited the Hashemite throne that his father, King Talal, abdicated for medical reasons. The young Hussein also inherited a country lacking resources and surrounded by political turmoil.

During the past four decades, Hussein has survived several assassination attempts and aborted coups. After his regime was threatened by leftists in 1957, he cracked down on and banned all political parties, with the exception of the Muslim Brotherhood, a moderate Islamic political party. He strengthened his security apparatus to protect the throne and politically neutralized them by banning them from political activity.

When the April 1989 riots broke out in the south of the country, protesting economic and political conditions, Hussein announced free parliamentary elections in November of that year. The Muslim Brotherhood won the largest single bloc, and now more than 12 political parties have been licensed ahead of parliamentary elections due in November.

The king's democratization policy, political analysts say, has contained his one-time communist and leftist enemies, as well as the potential rise of Muslim extremism.

The Muslim Brotherhood has been included in the three governments formed since the 1989 elections, averting the kind of confrontations seen in Egypt and Algeria.

"We can ignore neither the Muslim Brotherhood nor others and they all have to be included in the political system of the country," says Ibrahim Izziddine, minister of prime ministerial affairs.

Besides winning over the Jordanian left and right, Hussein has also succeeded in mustering support from the large Palestinian population in the kingdom. Since his administrative and legal disengagement from the West Bank in 1988, which was under Jordanian rule when Israel occupied it in 1967, Hussein has insisted that Jordan would support any decisions taken by the Palestine Liberation Organization, especially regarding the Middle East peace talks.

And unlike other Arab countries, Palestinians in Jordan, most of whom carry Jordanian citizenship, have enjoyed the same rights as native Jordanians.

Hussein's popularity at home also has spread to other Arab states. On the eve of the anniversary celebrations, he attended a concert where a famous Tunisian singer, Sofia Sadeq, sang the words of a prominent Iraqi poet, Mohammad Jawaheri, composed and conducted by Egyptian Jamal Salameh. The song was written especially for the king.

Mr. Razzaz, the Jordanian Arab Democractic Party leader, says Hussein believes he has a "Hashemite mission toward achieving a European-style Arab unity through democracy, pluralism, and respect for human rights.... He hopes to become a symbol in the Arab world by building a democratic model in Jordan," Razzaz says.

"I don't have any doubts that democracy is a national trend that is fully supported by Prince Hassan," Izziddine says of Hussein's brother, the heir apparent. "But it is difficult to replace such a great leader as King Hussein."

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