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Critics of Jordan's King Bemoan Missed Opportunities

  • Elizabeth Arrott

In a changing Arab world, some question if monarchies are still relevant. For Jordanians, long accustomed to the untouchable status of their king, recent price hikes have brought the issue to the forefront.

In recent days, some Jordanians have broken a long-held taboo - chanting attacks on King Abdullah himself.

The protests were sparked by a cut in subsidies, meant to forestall a fiscal crisis and comply with IMF loans. But it has unleashed resentment of what some call an absolute monarchy.

Commitment to reform questioned

Street activists are not the only ones taking on the king. Political analyst Labib Kamhawi questioned the monarch's commitment to reform on Jordanian television, and now faces criminal charges.

"Here the regime has no intention of of accepting people's demand for significant and serious reform because all powers are amassed in the hands of the king himself," said Kamhawi.

For a monarchy with roots in the arbitrary redrawing of the region's map by Western nations a century ago, Jordan has been, up to now, surprisingly stable. Jordanians may complain about the price hikes, but many still profess loyalty to the king.

King's supporters

Mohamed Hajir, a barber, said the price rise is a burden. But he called on God for continued peace and security, and for the king to remain the ruler.

This loyalty has helped Jordan weather the storms battering other nations in the region, including Syria, whose refugees fill camps along their mutual border.

But some worry that the king and his advisers are squandering their strength for short-term gains.

Parliamentary elections set for January will be a test of an electoral law some see as an attempt to undermine the influential Muslim Brotherhood.

"They adopted this electoral system, which ended up with more polarization in our society, more sub-identities emerged in our society, social violence even," said Oraib al-Rantawi, the director of al-Quds Center for Political Studies.

Some believe leaders also are manipulating fault lines between Jordanians originally from the region and those of Palestinian origin, who make up more than half the population.

"It wants to make sure that the two main components of the society - the East Jordanian and the Palestinians - do not come hand in hand, unified vis-a-vis the regime," said analyst Kamhawi.

Free speech under fire

Kamhawi said a failure to foster unity at this precarious time is compounded by the crackdown on free speech. For young activists in particular, freedom of expression has been a key demand of protesters throughout the region during the past nearly two years of protests.

"Short-sighted" is a description that comes up frequently in Jordanian discussions of the monarchy's approach to calls for peaceful, gradual reforms.

"This is part of the debate in our society, but unfortunately it seems to me that the lessons of the Arab Spring are not learned well even in Amman," said al-Quds Center director al- Rantawi.

Yet, analysts say, Jordanians retain hope, however slight, that their leaders will listen and prove the exception, rather than the rule.

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