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Reform and rumblings in Jordan

The Hashemite Kingdom has weathered the past year of regional political upheaval surprisingly well. But the resignation of the prime minister is a reminder of unmet demands for change.

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Ryan and others point out that if accommodations aren't made, there are risks ahead for Jordan, with a population that was riveted by the uprising in nearby Egypt and now watching in horror the war in Syria, with refugees from that conflict already streaming into their country.

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The fast, wrenching change that descended on Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya last year, sparked the ongoing Syrian civil war, and led to the current hostile and occasionally bloody standoff between Bahrain's rulers and its people, may seem to have come out of nowhere. But the one thing these different countries – and other Arab nations that have not been touched as much by turmoil – have in common is that they failed at the trick of opening up enough to head off eventual disaster while still retaining control.

That trick is what is usually meant when the word "reform" is tossed about. Bend, before you break. Create political institutions that give a dissatisfied populace a voice in the system before they take to the streets. It may be later than you think.

Egypt is a case in point. For over a decade, US officials in first the Bush administration and later Obama's, consistently told Hosni Mubarak and the courtiers around him to act before it was too late. He acceded to the US demands occasionally, usually when it looked like Egyptian aid was on the line, but never took the message to heart. His regime was strong, he reasoned, and knew what was best for the country. And if worst came to worst, he was an indispensable regional partner for the US, with its concerns about Islamist militancy and the security of Israel, and he would be saved.

Then the storm broke and the rest, as they say, is history.

Well, the Jordan of King Abdullah, and of his father King Hussein before him, has some similarities to the Egypt of Mubarak. The only other Arab state to make peace with Israel is another friend of the US, an important partner in America's regional ambitions, and home to a restive population. With an eye on not being the next domino to fall, Abdullah made steps towards a political opening last year. But now, it seems, change may be stalling.

Jordan's monarchy has proven very effective over the years at facing down challenges, both the bloody, as its defeat of the Black September movement in 1970 and '71, in which King Hussein faced down a potential takeover of Jordan by the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and the peaceful, as the democratic reform process enacted in 1989 in response to street protests has shown. 

But the Jordanian people have been glued to satellite television and the Internet the past year, watching rolling, partially successful demands for change elsewhere. The country is stable for now, but as Egypt and other neighbors show, pressure can build up for years along political fault-lines before erupting into an earthquake.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.


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