Jordan's Democracy: Is It a Model for Region?

The gamble of allowing Islamists in politics paid off, but North African militants may play by other rules

HIS Majesty kept his ever-courteous smile fixed firmly while he said it, but the barb in King Hussein's comment after Jordan's parliamentary elections on Monday did not go unnoticed.

``We are committed to democracy, to pluralism, and to respect for human rights,'' he said. Then came the sting: ``to make our country an example to others near and far.''

With dictatorial Baathist regimes ruling Syria to the north and Iraq to the east, and absolutist monarchs holding sway throughout the Gulf to his south, King Hussein's drive to liberalize Jordanian political life has not made him popular among neighboring rulers.

Yet even they, like observers all over the Arab world, have been intrigued to see how the Jordanian authorities would cope with a strong Islamist movement as the country moved toward democracy.

The answer served up by the election results appears clear: very well, thank you. But whether Jordan's deliberate encouragement of its radical Islamists to join the system can offer a path for other Middle Eastern countries to follow is not clear.

Although the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the Muslim Brotherhood's political party, lost ground in the polls, the setback in no way shook the Islamists' faith.

``We shared in this campaign and in the parliament in order to prove that the IAF, together with the country, is pioneering political activities,'' said IAF leader Itzhak Farhan after the elections.

The IAF won 16 of the 80 parliamentary seats, while another six independent Islamists, who support the IAF's social reform agenda, also got in. Although this still makes the IAF the largest single organized bloc in parliament, it marks a drop from the 33 seats that Islamists controlled in the last assembly.

IAF leaders blamed their party's disappointing performance on a late change in the electoral rules and government interference in their campaign.

``The government was not fair,'' complains Ziad abu-Ghanima, a senior IAF official. ``It was biased against our party.'' Reforms to the electoral law, which the king introduced in August after dismissing parliament, effectively gave more weight to votes for independent candidates and undermined large parties, such as the IAF.

A government ban on public campaign rallies - overturned eventually by the courts - also appeared aimed at the IAF, as it was the only party large enough and well-enough organized to stage big meetings.

But the government was careful to ensure that none of its constraints on the IAF campaign would prove so painful that the Islamists would pull out of the elections. At the same time, independent analysts argue, the IAF brought some of its misfortune on its own head, by disappointing voters with its performance in government and parliament over the past four years. Ineffective in office

Five Muslim Brothers took Cabinet posts in 1989, but they proved inept administrators and soon resigned.

``They didn't do anything special or distinguished, and they didn't give us a good idea of what they meant by their slogan `Islam is the solution,' '' recalls Hani Hourani, head of the New Jordan Research Center. ``They didn't know how to translate that slogan into concrete policies.''

Instead, Islamist ministers ruffled feathers by segregating their male and female office workers, and banning mixed sports in schools, while ``acting with the same mentality as any other political party, helping their own associations, appointing their own people, and so on,'' says Labib Kamhawi, a lecturer in politics.

``Their performance did not give people much encouragement to vote for the Islamists again,'' he argues.

If King Hussein was gambling when he decided to allow the Muslim Brotherhood the sort of political freedoms Islamists are denied in most other Arab countries, his gamble has paid off. Egypt and Algeria

Whether other regimes in the region could keep Islamist forces in controllable opposition, rather than risk being swept away, is less certain.

Jordan's economic and social problems, while challenging, seem more manageable than those facing Egypt or Algeria - two countries whose governments are under violent attack by Islamic radicals.

At the same time, Jordanian monarchs have for decades fostered good relations with the Muslim Brotherhood, earning the organization's gratitude and respect in a way that no other Arab government has done.

Further, the IAF has limited ambitions: to bring Jordanian law into closer conformity with Islam. This falls short of the goal of Islamists elsewhere in the region of toppling secular regimes.

``It is no secret that we do not believe that Jordan is now a suitable place to make an Islamic government,'' explains Mr. Ghanima. ``We are a poor country, dependent on outside assistance, and if we had an Islamic regime, no one would give us a penny.

But even without these advantages, many Jordanian pro-democracy activists argue, other Arab leaders would do well to emulate King Hussein's bid to modernize his country's political life.

``We are still a model'' for other countries, argues political columnist Rami Khoury. ``The real contribution Jordan has made has been its `politics of inclusion the idea that as long as they are not doing anything blatantly illegal or immoral, you have to let everyone participate in political life.''

``That is why the IAF is dropping back,'' Mr. Khoury adds. ``People are disappointed in them because they focused on superficial things. If you put them in the system, let them participate, and force them to be responsible, if they don't deliver, then the people will throw them out.''

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