When the King's Away The Critics Play

Jordan needs Hussein at home and brilliant again

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Things are not good in Jordan. People of all classes are openly discontented, and deteriorating economic conditions, coupled with a radical reorientation of foreign policy, have alienated many from the Hashemite monarchy.

What's dangerous is that more and more East Bank "tribes," long the bedrock of Hashemite rule, now seem ready to blame grievances on King Hussein rather than his minions.

It is not surprising that in mid-August King Hussein spoke darkly of irresponsible forces working in league with foreign powers to undermine Jordan's democracy. He warned he would strike with an "iron hand" against riots in the southern towns of Ma'an, Tafilah, and Karak.

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The crisis escalated when opposition parties called for the resignation of the Cabinet of Prime Minister Abdul-Karim Kabarati, which had raised the price of bread. In an unprecedented challenge to the authority of the king, pamphleteers in Karak voiced demands for a directly elected prime minister. Simultaneously, a battle raged in Karak between the townspeople and Bedouin police.

It was reported the Army used live ammunition and imposed a curfew on Karak. Recognizing the gravity of the situation, King Hussein took personal charge in the south. A massive show of force deterred planned demonstrations in Salt, 20 kilometers north of the capital Amman. By nightfall "precautionary arrests" had placed activists and local leaders behind bars in Irbid and other northern towns. By then new disturbances had rocked Amman.

Like the riots that broke out in April 1989, the uprising in the south was an East Bank affair. The large cities, with their concentrations of Palestinian refugees - in recent elections bastions of support for the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Islamist opposition - remained quiet. Sparked by price rises (oil and gasoline in 1989, bread and barley in 1996) and an unresponsive government, both outbreaks were confined to small, clannish communities mobilized through family ties and by word of mouth.

The few grow rich

Many Jordanians believe that the king had shown little sign of addressing the agenda of public accountability and social justice demanded by the 1989 riots. While a small class of well-connected businessmen have grown rich on rising land and share prices in the wake of the 1990 Gulf war, unemployment remains in double digits. Between one-fifth and one-third of households subsist on incomes below the official poverty line, and in the south growing numbers live in "absolute poverty," unable to afford adequate food or clothing.

International Monetary Fund-inspired reforms have imposed a regressive sales tax while reducing taxes on profits and capital gains. With the raising of the price of bread, economic liberalization has begun to threaten the system of public subsidy and government employment that sustains most East Jordanians.

Furthermore, since signing the peace treaty with Israel in 1994, King Hussein has pressed on with normalization of relations at a pace altogether too fast for popular taste. And the king has pursued an unpopular strategy of distancing Jordan from some of its Arab neighbors. King Hussein sold his treaty with Israel by promising Jordanians foreign investment and economic growth.

Absentee monarch

The appointment of the Kabarati Cabinet was portrayed as a "White Revolution" that would purge the corrupt old guard and usher in prosperity and a market economy. But Jordanians have so far seen little of the fruits of peace. And after two decades of governmental neglect, many southerners believe that any economic peace dividend would go to the urban and largely Palestinian business class.

Complicating Jordan's difficulties is a vacuum of leadership that is the talk of Amman. King Hussein has often absented himself abroad. By one count, he has spent only 45 days in his kingdom this year. His absence is not helped by the inexperience of the Kabarati Cabinet. Neither the Cabinet nor the royal court gave due weight to clear portents of the impending storm: a noisy demonstration by Bani Sakhr tribesmen outside the prime ministry protesting plans to lift the subsidy on barley and animal feed, and a boycott of the parliamentary debate on the bread issue by members of the opposition Islamic Action Front.

Bread price up 300 percent

Instead the government chose to force through 300 percent rises in the price of bread. In a debate seen on television by the populace, Kabarati himself overruled a compromise measure drawn up by a committee of 24 moderate and normally progovernment parliamentarians. For many Jordanians, the prime minister seemed to be flouting public opinion and closing all avenues except recourse to the street.

In 1989 Hussein's younger brother, Crown Prince Hasan, standing in as regent, held back from using troops against the rioters. With the Bedouin police crackdown on demonstrators in Karak, King Hussein unleashed the force of the state on those who had been his most loyal supporters. Disquiet in the political elite expressed itself in a call for constitutional reform by some 40 prominent personalities (including two ex-premiers and a former speaker of parliament) and in the resignation of the king's national security adviser.

Time and again, King Hussein has proved a skillful tactician, a brilliant survivor in a precarious domestic and regional environment. He has outmaneuvered opponents by sensing the political pulse of his people. But many supporters worry that he is losing touch with citizens' hopes and fears. Resolution of the current crisis depends on the king's willingness to reconnect with the people and put his house in order.

*Fawaz A. Gerges, who is completing a book on political Islam, is an assistant professor of international affairs and Middle Eastern history at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. Tariq Tell is a researcher on the Middle East in Amman, Jordan.

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