Jordan Islamists Struggle to Keep Legislative Bloc

Pro-regime candidates return to tribal base as rift grows over Israeli-PLO peace accord

IN a back alley, lighted with one string of light bulbs, some 200 young men gather after the evening prayers to listen to a bearded candidate preach against peace with Israel.

The message is simple: The Arab and Palestinian negotiators have failed to achieve a comprehensive peace solution because they have not abided by the word of God, the Koran.

Sheikh Abdel Majid Jaber launches into a mix of political and religious rhetoric about plans by the United States and Israel to dominate the Arab World.

Incitement against the peace accord between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) has become the rallying cry of Jordan's Islamic Action Front (IAF), which has fielded 35 candidates for the country's first multiparty parliamentary elections on Nov. 8.

But that stance has raised the government's ire. During the last three weeks the government and the Muslim Brotherhood, the strong movement behind the IAF, have been locking horns over new election restrictions and regulations that the opposition parties say are an attempt to prevent them from securing a majority bloc in the new parliament.

King Hussein endorses the peace accord and two months ago disbanded parliament apparently to avoid a debate on peace with Israel. The Islamists held 22 of 80 seats, forming the largest bloc in that legislature.

The king also introduced a new ``one man, one vote'' electoral system that prevents candidates from forming tickets since voters will be able to cast their ballot for only one candidate.

The government banned open rallies, prohibited the use of mosques for political campaigning, and transferred a number of government employees to different district areas for allegedly supporting the Islamists.

IAF officials accuse the government of harassing their supporters and candidates, and encouraging pro-establishment clergy to run as spoilers in an attempt to split the Islamic votes.

The IAF scored an important victory last week when the Supreme Court reversed the ban on public rallies. But the restriction had an impact, slowing the Brotherhood's campaign for three weeks. And with a week to go before the vote, the government still requires parties to apply for permits to hold gatherings.

In a region where the conflict between states and Islamists is turning into violent confrontations, Jordan has successfully accommodated the large Islamist movement within a somewhat pluralistic system.

The Muslim Brotherhood, known as the Ikhwan, ensured its survival, and consequently its expansion, by forming a de facto alliance with King Hussein against the leftist and pan-Arab nationalist radicals in the 1950s.

But the movement has grown more radical, criticizing the peace process and government policies, and the king has skillfully clipped its wings to avoid a showdown over peace with Israel.

THE IAF is filing 37 suits to protest the government's transfer of supporters and the battle between the government of Prime Minister Abdel Salam al-Majali and the Brotherhood is expected to take different forms in the coming week.

Although the government is not interfering directly in favor of candidates, pro-government, conservative candidates are no longer prepared to forge alliances with the Islamists against the left. Instead, they have fallen back on their tribal supporters in direct competition with those who oppose peace with Israel.

Last week Jordanian security forces surrounded the IAF headquarters and prevented party officials and journalists from entering the building.

In spite of its radical rhetoric, the Brotherhood has not been involved in any military actions or violence in Jordan. But unprecedented clashes last weekend between an Army post and three gunmen shocked the country. The government said the gunmen, who were killed, belonged to a new extremist Islamic group. A young Jordanian Army officer was killed in the shootout.

The attack was condemned by IAF officials who fear it could be used to justify tighter government measures against the Islamists.

But the IAF is determined to intensify its campaign against peace with Israel. ``We are sure that only a tiny minority of the people here support the accord; this will be confirmed on the polling day in favor of the IAF,'' says Ziad abu-Ghaneimah, an outspoken leader of the party.

Back in this refugee camp, Sheikh Abdel Jabir has chosen his stumping ground with purpose, in the alley behind the mosque whose pro-government Imam is also a candidate. The majority of residents here are Palestinians who were displaced after the establishment of Israel in 1948, and a clergyman who backs the peace accord seems a long shot.

``The accord denied me my right to return.... I am from that part of Palestine that was occupied in 1948,'' Abdel Jabir says. He pauses for a moment, looks at the young men, and adds emphatically: ``And so are you.''

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