In Jordan, the King Decides It's the Right Time to Clean House

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Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

King Abdullah II of Jordan

Know what's contagious? Fear is contagious. On the day more than 1 million Egyptians took to the streets demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, the monarch governing a desert kingdom right next door saw fit to dismiss his Prime Minister and appoint ... a new government.

This was in Jordan, where the statement issued by the Palace of King Abdullah II made clear the first orders to the newly minted Premier, former general Marouf Bakhit: "to take practical, quick and tangible steps to launch true political reforms, enhance Jordan's democratic drive and ensure safe and decent living for all Jordanians."

And so the fever that began in Tunisia and ravaged mighty Egypt appeared to leap the Suez and blister the sands of the Sinai itself before seizing Amman, the well-scrubbed and courtly capital of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Where, to be sure, there is ample evidence of the ills driving populist revolts across the Arab crescent. On top of stubborn poverty and rising prices for staples like bread, the much vaunted privatizing of the kingdom's public companies swelled the wallets of insiders without reducing a towering public debt.

But there are protests, and there are protests. On the streets of Cairo on Friday, Jan. 28, angry youths beat back riot police and set fire to armored trucks. At the same hour in Amman, "the security forces were handing out water and juice," says Joost Hiltermann, an International Crisis Group official who was visiting from Washington. "It was really tepid and friendly."

Consider: The Muslim Brotherhood, known in Jordan as the Islamic Action Front, is calling not for regime change but for "dialogue." It presented its priorities on Monday, Jan. 31; prominent among them were election of the Prime Minister, who, under the terms of the 1952 constitution, is appointed by His Highness. "Today everybody agrees that they do not want regime change. They want reforms," Zaki Bani Rashid told Agence France-Presse (AFP). "But our demands today could change tomorrow if the authorities do not act quickly."

That was Monday. The Prime Minister went the next day.

There was precedent for the housecleaning as well as fortuitous timing. "This happens frequently in Jordan [that the King dismisses the government]," says Michael Young, opinion-pages editor of Lebanon's Daily Star. "The government was perceived to be a corrupt government. It was made up of businessmen who profited from their positions. So the King probably, considering what is going on elsewhere, was trying to block similar events in Jordan. It was a pre-emptive move."

"There is no comparison between Egypt and Jordan," an Islamic Action Front official told AFP. "The people there demand a regime change, but here we ask for political reforms and an elected government. We recognize and acknowledge the legitimacy of the Hashemites."

The law gives them little choice, of course. Direct criticism of the King is forbidden in Jordan, so the protesters who assembled outside the office of then Prime Minister Samir Rifai on Saturday did well to make their chants specific. "It is time for change. Our problem is Rifai," they chorused.

Independent observers judge that the respect for Jordan's royals is grounded in realpolitik. The Hashemite royal family hails from the Hejaz of what is now eastern Saudi Arabia and was given control of Jordan by the British mapmakers who (with the French) drew the borders of the modern Middle East. Once a collection of nomadic tribes in what was dubbed TransJordan, the modern kingdom is majority Palestinian, having absorbed a huge number of refugees from the land Jewish armies took over in 1948 to create Israel.

The current monarch's charismatic father, King Hussein, not only navigated the demographic landscape but proved so adept at accommodating assorted parties — including Washington — that he made himself seem indispensable. Abdullah II, who ascended to the throne in 1999, has garnered less glowing reviews. But he married a Palestinian, Queen Rania, and when protesters began gathering in Cairo, he had the wits to get out of the castle that is Amman and be seen inquiring as to the welfare of his subjects in the desert south of the capital.

"If such visits had been undertaken" by Cabinet members, the Jordan Times tut-tutted in an editorial this week, "if the grievances of the population had been made known, it could be that we would not have seen demonstrations, like those that occurred of late, against high prices and the low standard of living of some Jordanians."

Time will tell whether changing Prime Ministers does the trick. Before he left, Rifai lowered the price of bread and raised the pay of civil servants. But of the Arab states that may be vulnerable to the fever for greater democracy, Hiltermann places the Hashemite Kingdom well down the list.

"While the sort of demands being voiced across the region are very similar — better governments, accountability, fighting corruption, political reform generally — the countries we're dealing with are very different," says Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group. "The way these demands are being processed is going to differ from country to country. In Jordan we have a situation where a monarchy has been accepted historically as an outsider bringing together different tribes and populations across Jordan, especially the Palestinians. The monarchy plays a very specific role and has been accepted because of it. I think in Jordan the Hashemite monarchy has a lot of good will."

Young of the Daily Star agrees. "Jordan is different from the region," he says. "There are problems. But the monarchy is not the same as a Mubarak. Mubarak may have behaved like a King, but he was a tyrant, and perceptions are different. No one is going to demand the removal of the Hashemite dynasty. Sure, they can demand that the government be changed, or the removal of parliament, but things in Jordan are a little more complicated than they are in Egypt."

— With reporting by Aryn Baker / Beirut