Jordan Takes Conservative Turn

Resignation of liberal prime minister seen as blow to reform process

TO head off a political crisis caused by Jordan's democratization and participation in Middle East peace talks, King Hussein has again made his cousin, Sherif Zaid Ben Shaker, Jordan's prime minister. Islamic fundamentalists and conservative leaders last week brought down the government of premier Taher al-Masri.Conservatives here have felt threatened by new political freedoms. As a result of the king's two-year-old democratization process, leftists have been tacitly allowed for the first time in over 30 years to form political parties, join parliament, and ultimately be part of Mr. Masri's coalition government. Fundamentalists also opposed Jordan's participation in the US-led peace process. Mr. Ben Shaker, who two years ago supervised the country's first parliamentary elections in 23 years, has pledged to pursue democratic reforms. But analysts say the move signals a slow down in Jordan's transition toward a more democratic form of government. Ben Shaker's Cabinet, formed last week, accommodates conservatives, although not fundamentalists opposed to peace talks. The liberal Masri resigned after failing to form a broad coalition government - an attempt to break the hold of traditionalist forces and fundamentalists on domestic politics. Appointed last June, he also tried to curb the excesses of the security services, particularly their inhibition of political freedoms. "This [resignation] is certainly a step backward.... Democratization has suffered a setback," says Mazen al-Saket, a pan-Arab nationalist commentator and activist. Masri had initially succeeded in securing the backing of the leftist opposition and pan-Arab nationalists, but differences over the peace process, controversial International Monetary Fund (IMF) austerity measures and a delay in repealing martial law shattered the alliance he sought. Last October, conservatives, fundamentalists, extreme nationalists, and radical leftists put out a call, signed by 49 out of the 80 members of Jordan's parliament, for Masri's resignation. Masri "was trying to break a political setup that had been entrenched for the last three decades," says one of Masri's former ministers. "The resistance he faced was inevitable, but he was disappointed [by] the unpreparedness of the leftists and liberals." Leftists, whom Masri viewed as the counterweight to the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood and the conservatives (reversing a three-decade de facto alliance between the regime and the Islamists), argue that they could not be part of a government that implemented IMF policies but failed to repeal martial law. "Our constituency will just not accept that. These policies ran against the interests of the working people we represent," says Tayseer Zabri of the leftist Jordan People's Democratic Party. Although the new prime minister is likely to face the same challenges, some analysts believe that being a member of the ruling Hashemite family will enable him to control the security services and reign in conservative leaders. And it may be harder for fundamentalists to vote against the Cabinet when parliament resumes session next month. Says Mohammed Abdul Rahman Khalifa, spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood: "We cannot take part in a government engaged in peace talks with the Jewish state, but the issue of parliamentary confidence has not been decided." The Brotherhood controls 22 seats in parliament. "With the Masri government," says one specialist on the movement, "the Brotherhood could claim that it opposed the government but not the regime. But a confrontation with Ben Shaker will mean a confrontation with the king - something that the Brotherhood will avoid."

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