Abdullah II cracks down on dissent
- The following article appeared on page A28 of the sunday, 9 February 2003
edition of The Arizona Republic. It is credited to Anthony Shadid of The
AS SUPPORT EBBS, JORDAN'S KING STIFLES DISSENT
Arab Leaders, Others Call Monarch Too Close To U.S.
Maan, Jordan--Around the corner from an armored car and beyond the steely
glare of police, Sheik Subhi Mughribi sat in the back room of a cramped
stationery store, thumbing his well-worn string of yellow worry beads.
He effusively apologized that conditions prevented him from being more
hospitable, as Bedouin traditions would dictate. His phone line was cut.
And because he is a prominent tribal and religious leader in this restive
city, police were keeping a close eye on his home.
"But," he said, "I'm not afraid."
Disagreeing With Government
In a country where dissent is sometimes whisphered, Mughribi was blunt.
He was still angry over clashes in November that left six dead in this
southern city. The government blamed the violence on lawless gangs and
smugglers. But many here attributed it to poverty, neglect, anger over
U.S. policy in Israel and Iraq and the heavy hand of a worried government.
In words of protest and nostalgia, Mughribi said his grievances run far
deeper, at young, technocratic ministers who are out of touch, at a
government too close to America and at a king more comfortable in English
than Arabic and ill at ease with tribal traditions. Like others in
Maan, Mughribi said he longs for the charisma of the late King Hussein,
who he said knew every family in town and enjoyed sharing their food.
Four years after the death of his father, King Abdullah II faces mounting
pressure from the pillars of King Hussein's 45-year rule. Powerful tribal
leaders such as Mughribi, bedrocks of the monarchy, are outspoken in
their skepticism of a style they see as aloof and a perspective they
believe is grounded in Abdullah's British and U.S. education. Moderate
Islamic leaders, once allies of the government, are incensed at being
shut out of power. Even liberal, secular forces that might embrace the
king's Western orientation and economic reforms are frustrated that those
changes have not been accompanied by promised political liberalization.
Abdullah, a crucial if reluctant ally in any U.S.-led war against Iraq,
has responded with an iron fist. He sent tanks and thousands of police
and soldiers into Maan, 130 miles south of Amman, in a move senior
Jordanian officials said was part crackdown, part message of what was in
store in the event of wartime unrest. In the capital and elsewhere, he
has clamped down on outspoken unions and opposition political parties.
George Hawatmeh, editor of al-Rai, the country's largest newspaper, said
he was now so relentless in censoring his own paper that he did not worry
about provoking the government.
With elections promised this year, the contest under way in this small
desert kingdom may serve as a test of coming challenges for an undemocratic
Arab world. Jordan is in the throes of transformation, with competing
visions of its future, and some analysts suggest that the unfolding
battles could prove a barometer of change elsewhere.
Still An Open, Tolerant Land
By the standards of other Arab countries, Jordan remains a relatively open
and tolerant society. Its stability has proved an exception in the
region, a remarkable record given its history. The British carved Jordan
out of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, the monarchy's roots lie in
the Hijaz of modern-day Saudi Arabia and the majority of its five million
people are of Palestinean descent.
But unlike his father, who navigated crisis after crisis with popularity
and political acument, Abdullah faces few real challenges to his
government's legitimacy, analysts say. Rather than survival, his priority
is economic reform. He has staffed his Cabinet, particularly the
economic portfolios, with young, U.S. and British educated technocrats.
After dissolving Parliament in 2001, his government handed down more
than 120 temporary laws, many aimed at liberalizing the economy. In the
next election, the government plans a quota for women in Parliament.
Analysts say the government, although divided, has gambled that the benefits
of social and economic reform will allow a shift away from its traditional
support and forestall demands arising from anti-U.S. sentiment.
"I think the vast majority of public opinion in Jordan is with the government
and the king," Information Minister Mohammed Adwan said. "That's how we've
been able to contain demonstrations ... the past two years."
Opposition groups cite other reasons for the quiet.
"We have tyranny dressed up in a suit, cleanly shaven, talking about
democratic rights," said Hisham Bustani, a dentist and leftist activist.
"We have this repression that's neat."
Bustani, a critic of the government, was arrested in December and held
for six days after writing an article for a magazine in Lebanon about a
detention in Jweideh prison, just outside Amman. In it, he recounted
seeing guards practicing karate on inmates and beating them with cables.
After the article was published, Bustani was told to report to intelligence
headquarters. He was handcuffed as he sat in a chair, then taken to a
police station. When he refused to sign a statement, he said, he was taken
again to Jweideh. In prison, he shared a room with 35 other people.
Out of boredom, and despite his atheism, he read religious books in the
facility's small library. This time, he said, he was treated well and
released on bail the equivalent of about $14,000.
Bustani belongs to the Dental Association, one of the six main groups
that make up the powerful Union of Professional Associations, the most
politically active group in Jordanian society. Islamic activists dominate
the unions, but they have found common ground with leftists and Arab
nationalists on issues that unite most politial forces in the Arab world:
support for Palestinians and Iraq, greater democratic rights and
opposition to normalization of relations with Israel.
That is clear at headquarters. A banner over the door reads, "The struggle
of our steadfast Palestinian and Iraqi people lives in the face of Zionist
and American designs."