Jordan's Soft Touch on Islam

Tack is unique in the region. But Islamists may boycott elections over curbs on power.

For secular Mideast leaders such as Jordan's King Hussein, one dilemma persists: how to check the spread of Islamist influence, even as its grassroots support grows?

In Jordan, mosques boisterously call the faithful to prayer. And even as the well-off embrace Western ways, a deep conservatism has brought more and more women to wear the veil.

Though the king has taken an accommodating line - until now encouraging Islamists to play a role in parliament - there are worrisome examples of responses to this dilemma going wrong.

In Algeria, the most extreme case, armed Islamist groups have killed more than 60,000 people in five years since the military annulled an election Islamists were set to win. In Iran, the pro-West shah was swept away overnight in the Islamic revolution of 1979.

Islamists in Egypt have brought a rash of attacks on police and tourists, and in Turkey recently the military forced an Islamist prime minister from power, though his party enjoys widespread support.

Solutions can also run the gamut: Syrian forces of President Hafez al-Assad destroyed the Islamist stronghold of Hama in 1982, leveling the city and killing more than 20,000 people.

Jordan, by contrast, has steered a uniquely moderate course. The Muslim Brotherhood and its political wing, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), are tolerated and have more support than any other political group.

But the Islamists have declared a boycott in the runup to elections to Jordan's 13th parliament, slated for Nov. 4.

In public, they reject Jordan's peace with Israel, reject the government's massaging of the electoral process to limit their numbers in parliament, and say that - in the face of rule by royal decree - parliament is ineffective.

But analysts say the real reason for the boycott may be that Islamists are losing support, because they are tied to the regime and no longer an effective opposition.

"They are afraid of losing more seats," says Hani Hourani, the director of the Al-Urdun Al-Jadid Research Center in Amman. "They have their own crises and divisions, plus they have problems in Jordan with the government. This way they can avoid more negative results."

In Jordan's first election in 1989, Islamists won 28 out of 80 seats in parliament. But a controversial election law was passed on the eve of the 1993 vote that effectively cut Islamist representation down to 17 seats.

"They do not want to give the government any reward [by taking part], so that it can say it is running a free and democratic election," Mr. Hourani says. "They were once proud of what they achieved, but now they feel they are going backward very fast."

The king's strong support of the peace process, especially, has harmed the Islamists' reputation. "This is a big issue for them," says a Western diplomat. "A lot of people felt they were losing support by being part of the parliament, by being associated with normalizing ties with Israel."

Diplomats also speculate about how much relations between the Islamists and the regime will change over this issue. The Islamist leadership reportedly opposed the boycott, but lost the internal debate.

"Jordan could lose the old generation of leaders who learned to work within the establishment," says the diplomat. "All along, the Islamists have proposed changes and dialogue, but the government has been very intransigent."

The proferred reasons for the boycott have also been cast in doubt by senior Islamists themselves. Bassam Emoush, a member of the IAF executive council, has publicly called on the Muslim Brotherhood to reveal the "real motivations" behind the decision.

Deputies in parliament, he says, had a chance to oppose Jordan's peace deal with Israel in 1994 and didn't. And they took part in the 1993 vote, even though the election law that discriminated against ideological parties like theirs was in place.

"Islamists before wanted to give the system a chance, for democracy as a whole," explains Ibrahim Gharaibeh, an Islamist and editor of the Al-Ommah monthly magazine, shut down in September in accordance with strict new press regulations.

"But Islamists found that democracy was backwards, that the government was issuing laws without consulting parliament," he says. "It is impossible that the Islamists will go for extreme [violent] methods of change, but maybe another movement will be created that will take that way."

Leith Shbeilat, a popular Islamist who criticizes both the monarchy and Islamist "selling out," says his colleagues have no vision of the future. "Forget about the Islamists, they are in the king's pocket," he says. "They are given a ceiling [by the regime], and they accept it. Yes, they represent the emotions of the people, but they betray them because of their lack of vision."

Still, few in Jordan believe that such a rare example of accommodation will give way to armed conflict as in Algeria, or even demand for change as in Turkey.

"All those who boycott the election make it easier for the government to limit pluralism - it means there are no obstacles," says Hourani at the al-Urdun al-Jadid center. "But the Muslim Brotherhood here is pragmatic, and will realize this is a big loss. Our king is also pragmatic. This is not the end to accommodation."

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