Jordan tries to be more 'open' without encouraging leftists

Jordan's - indeed, the Arab world's - most free-wheeling parliamentary debate in years has highlighted both the extent and limits of recent liberalization moves here.

In the parliamentary session Tuesday, Jordan's prime minister gave previously unannounced details of a recent campaign of attempted terrorist bombings. He blamed them partly on Iran, Syria, and Libya, and on Jordanian youths ''influenced against'' the government while studying abroad.

The mere subject of the debate - Jordan's powerful internal intelligence apparatus - was nothing short of startling in a region where secret police forces are often the main pillars of government. Public discussion, much less criticism, of the security police has long been a virtually universal Arab taboo.

Tuesday's debate came barely a week before Egypt is scheduled to hold its freest national election since the late Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power three decades ago.

There will be limits in Egypt, too, to democratization. As in Jordan, the powers that be in Cairo are especially intent on keeping democratization from encouraging either leftist or fundamentalist militants allegedly bent on undermining the government.

A senior Jordanian official terms the calibrated loosening of political constraints here and in Cairo a ''trend with potentially enormous significance in the Arab world.''

In Egypt, the official suggested in an interview, one result could be to lend ''visible popular support'' to President Hosni Mubarak's purposefully lukewarm relations with Israel.

In Jordan, one of King Hussein's main reasons for reinvigorating ''political life'' has been to provide a freer, nonviolent outlet for dissent. Among catalysts for dissent, diplomats here suggest, have been the regional tide of Islamic fundamentalism and a local economic boom that has helped create a much better educated and much more politically aware population.

More than half of the Jordanian population is under 25 years of age, and more than half is of Palestinian origin.

The officially monitored news media's relatively frank reports on the parliamentary session were striking, too. Amman newspapers did omit various details of deputies' criticism of the intelligence body.

But the gist of the criticism was inescapably evident on the front pages.

The most forceful criticism came from ''Islamic-line'' deputies, notably from an Amman parliamentarian elected in the March by-election that followed King Hussein's ending of a 10-year hiatus in parliamentary activity.

The deputy, Leith Shbeilat, accused the internal police of detaining citizens without legal charges or trial, using ''psychological and physical pressure'' on detainees, confiscating passports from Jordanian students returning from abroad, and interfering with citizens' employment opportunities for political reasons.

He and other deputies also called for a disbanding of decades-old martial-law courts, suggesting they were being used not for their officially avowed purpose of steeling the country for posssible conflict with Israel.

Prime Minister Ahmed Obeidat called the deputies' charges ''exaggerated.''

He added, accurately, that Jordan's internal police is far more restrained than those of various other Arab states.

Mr. Obeidat acknowledged the crackdown on students. But he said it would continue and was essential to combating the recent spate of bombing attempts. He termed the constraints on students ''a tax paid by a minority so that the majority can be safe.''

Stressing the scale of the campaign of bomb attempts, including more than a dozen successful strikes, Mr. Obeidat cited previously unannounced bomb tries he said had failed. He said the latest had been to rocket the Amman headquarters of state radio and television.

He also said the intelligence police had detained a group of military men and civilians linked to the fundamentalist Islamic Jihad group.

The Jihad has claimed responsibility for suicide-truck bombings of the US Marine base and other targets in Lebanon.

The premier in effect nixed talk of lifting martial law, although he added he had nothing against ''improving the functions'' of military courts.

He rejected a call for creation of a parliamentary committee to monitor the work of the intelligence apparatus and human rights issues. The intelligence service's work was necessarily secret, he said, and such a committee would be impractical. But he did propose a committee for ''liaison'' with the government on security and defense matters.

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