Liberal gains slip away in Jordan

Jordan's first female MP, jailed for criticizing the prime minister, was freed last week after a hunger strike.

The face of Toujan Faisal, Jordan's first female MP, wrenches as she strains to shake the hands of her visitors. She is too frail to pour her own coffee and she pants as she speaks. And yet scores of Jordanian lawyers, journalists, and human-rights activists are flocking to her apartment in Jordan's capital to welcome her release from prison last week after a 29-day hunger strike.

"The king freed me the day after I wrote my will. He knew I was going to die," says Ms. Faisal, displaying the bruises on her arms where prison doctors tried to apply needles to feed her intravenously.

Last week King Abdullah pardoned Faisal of her conviction, but not of her crime: criticizing a politician on the Internet. The State Security Court charged her with "damaging the reputation of the state" and sentenced her to 18 months imprisonment for accusing the prime minister of raising car-insurance rates to benefit his family insurance business. It allowed no appeal in what Faisal says was a political trial.

Faisal's case has cast a spotlight on waning political freedoms in Jordan and across an already much-muzzled region. When President Bush demanded elections and transparent government for the Palestinians in a June 24 speech, civil rights groups in the Mideast questioned why such standards applied just to the Palestinians. In the particular Arab states where the US wields the most influence, civil liberties have deteriorated markedly since Sept. 11.

Faisal was the first Jordanian to be prosecuted under Article 150 of the Penal Code, introduced within weeks of the attacks on New York and Washington. The law banned unauthorized public meetings and provided for the jailing of journalists "for sowing the seeds of hatred" for up to three years. Last week, Arab journalists working for foreign media were summoned for questioning and television crews told they would need permission for each public place they wished to film.

"For the first time Jordanian law grouped journalists and terrorists in the same camp," says Bassem Sakijha, one of Jordan's leading columnists. After years of frustration spent appealing for authorization to publish his newspaper, Akhar Khabar, Mr. Sakijha has now retreated to the Internet, sending his newsletter by e-mail. But such is the thirst for uncensored information that in its first 40 days, Akhar Khabar has increased its circulation tenfold to 150,000 subscribers across the Middle East and the Gulf.

Nevertheless Jordanians still say they bask in the relative freedom in a benevolent buffer zone between the competing powers of Israeli militarism, Arab nationalism, and Islamist extremism. A recent United Nations Development Program report on governance in the Arab world ranked Jordan No. 1 in "voice and accountability," a category measuring popular participation in decision-making. But the report placed the Arab world at the bottom in the pace of global development.

Arab officials blame the decline on the need to maintain stability during a two-year upswing in Israeli-Palestinian violence. King Abdullah dissolved parliament in June last year and has ruled since by decreeing an estimated 100 temporary laws, which will remain in effect at least until after the next elections.

But no date has been set for the balloting, apparently for fear that the Islamic Action Front, the kingdom's most organized political party, might dominate, and electoral rallies be turned into anti-American protests in a kingdom where half the population is Palestinian.

"The king wants a parliament which will articulate the vision of a Muslim state with modern Western liberal values," says Bassem Awadallah, planning minister at the forefront of the dynamic young guard who form the king's inner circle. "If the king feels that the regional situation can affect negatively the legislative branch which will not share his vision, he is at liberty to do what he can."

Jordan's intelligentsia accuse the government of reversing the liberals' gains of the early 1990s, when King Abdullah's father, Hussein, introduced Jordan's first multiparty democracy and canceled martial law. In a recent interview, Abdullah lampooned Jordan's after-dinner political salons as "mafias." The gatherings, which take in private homes, are considered by some intellectuals to be a last stand for free thought.

"If you give yourselves these powers," says a European diplomat, "when you're angry there's a temptation to use them."

Former government officials who led earlier democratic reforms accuse Western capitals of washing their hands of the democrats.

Jordan's support for the US war on terror and its active peace with Israel has spared it public criticism from the West, they say, but has led to rising repression at home against anti-American and anti- Israeli demonstrations, which had occurred in greater numbers than anywhere else in the Arab world.

To root out protests, the king has banned public assembly without a license, and barred civil servants from signing petitions that might "potentially harm the integrity of the state."

"Sept. 11 has allowed governments to crack down on their opposition all over the world," says Rami Khouri, an influential Jordanian political scientist. "Arab governments all want to jump on the bandwagon to tap US money – and backpedal on further [political] advances."

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