As brushes with security forces in the Arab world go, ours with Jordanian security men in this northern provincial town would have to be rated mild. In the northern town of Irbid to cover a parliamentary by-election, another Western correspondent and I were followed, detained, questioned, and released. No notes were taken from us, no threats were made.
But that Western reporters would have a run-in with Jordanian security is the latest sign that something is amiss in this usually hospitable nation. In recent months:
Censorship of the local press has tightened. Jordanian newspaper editors complain that they are prevented from covering many stories the government considers sensitive. Several Jordanian journalists whom the government has identified as unfriendly to the regime have been barred from writing for Jordanian publications. One journalist's passport was taken.
Prime Minister Zaid Rifai banned from Jordan a Western television correspondent who wrote an article last month on Mr. Rifai's government. Inquiries into the matter by the US government yielded no results.
A writer for a West European newspaper who reported on the government's violent breakup of a student demonstration last month at Yarmouk University in Irbid was called in to see the minister of information, who accused him of inciting the students.
Even government officials are finding it more difficult to get uncensored publications from outside Jordan. An official in the Ministry for Occupied Territories, which deals with the Israeli-occupied West Bank, displayed two Arabic newspapers published in east Jerusalem: each had holes cut out by the Jordanian censor.
``What 2 million Palestinians living under occupation read every day I can't read,'' the official said.
``There is beginning to be a pattern here, and we are worried that it is going to get harder to work,'' a resident Western correspondent said.
Trouble began for my colleague from the London Observer and me when we arrived at the home of Irbid Mayor Abdul Razzaq Tbaishat last Thursday, the day of the by-elections.
A Jordanian by-election would not normally attract Western coverage, but the odds-on favorite in Irbid was an Islamic fundamentalist and the government was worried enough about the result that a Cabinet minister tried to persuade him not to run. Irbid was in the news last month when three students died and 60 were hurt as security forces broke up a demonstration at Yarmouk University where students were protesting the expulsion of some undergraduates. Police said 17 of their men were injured. Jordanian analysts predicted that Irbid voters would register their disapproval of the government's handling of the affair by backing the fundamentalists.
Dr. Tbaishat was not at home when we arrived, but Jordanian security men awaited us outside his gate, and told us we must go directly to the Irbid governor's office rather than speak to the mayor or his family. We declined, and entered the house. During the next hours, a war of wills ensued between the mistress of the house and a burly uniformed police officer who confronted us inside the mayor's reception room. The officer wanted us to leave with him. Our hostess insisted we could stay.
When the mayor arrived, he spoke with compassionate conviction. ``I am sure that our King does not know what is going on here. If he did, he would not agree.''
During our interview, the police officer insisted on stationing himself on Tbaishat's sofa. Afterward, a carload of policemen escorted us first to the governor's office, which was empty, then to the central police station. There we were questioned by a plainclothes security man who would not give us his name. ``There is an emergency here. You cannot talk to the mayor, only to the governor,'' he admonished. ``Who gave you permission?''
Before we left Irbid, residents told us of harassment by security men at the polls aimed at intimidating supporters of the fundamentalist candidate, Abdul Majeed Nuseir. One Irbid man predicted that when the votes were counted, they would show that the government's favored candidate, Jamal Obeidat, had won.
Mr. Obeidat was declared the winner Friday -- with 22,366 votes to Mr. Nuseir's 10,230. But the fundamentalists declared victory, charging the election was rigged.
``The government made Nuseir an idol,'' said Laith Shubeilat, one of four fundamentalist members of Jordan's parliament. ``In Irbid today, people are congratulating him on the street.''
All indications are that King Hussein remains a respected and even loved monarch by most of his people. But his government is becoming increasingly unpopular.
The action that has drawn the greatest criticism was the storming of Yarmouk. Included among Yarmouk's 14,000 students are the sons and daughters of some of northern Jordan's oldest and most respected families.
The prime minister's office ordered an investigation, but Yarmouk was closed for the summer, an act described by Tbaishat as ``clearly punishment of the students, who were not at fault.'' Tbaishat said several of Irbid's most prominent family heads are still lobbying the government to reopen the university for the summer ``because we know that everything will be quiet.''
Jordanians and Western diplomats are at a loss to explain the reasoning behind the government's actions. Hussein, they say, remains firmly in control of his throne. He has, however, taken controversial steps by ending his coordination on the Mideast peace process with the Palestine Liberation Organization and reconciling with Syria in a way that angered some Jordanians. Several months ago the King issued a public apology to the Syrians for Jordan's involvement in Muslim Brotherhood actions against President Hafez Assad's regime.
Many Jordanians assert that the King is unaware of his security forces' excesses, and argue that the King himself was angered by the Yarmouk incident.