As Protests Turn Violent, Jordan Ponders Reforms

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Marco Longari / AFP / Getty Images

Relatives carry the body of Khairy Jamil Saad at a cemetery on the outskirts of Amman, Jordan, on March 27, 2011

A man buried Sunday morning south of Amman was the first casualty in Jordan's three-month-old antigovernment protests. Officials say Khairy Jamil Saad, 55, died of a heart attack. Fellow demonstrators say he died of injuries sustained during Friday's attack by riot police and pro-government protesters on the estimated 2,000 antigovernment activists in central Nasser Square. Security forces and pro-government supporters launched into demonstrators who had been camped out since Thursday night, beating them with sticks, throwing rocks and using water hoses. The violence sent a collective shudder through a country that had until then avoided the chaos that has engulfed Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and now neighboring Syria.

In the crosshairs of the government is the Islamic Action Front (IAF), Jordan's arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has held benign protests in the city every Friday since the so-called Arab Spring began in early January, mainly demanding fair and democratic elections and fewer restrictions and red tape in the formation of political parties. In response to the opposition's demands for democratic reform, King Abdullah replaced his Cabinet on Feb. 1, instructing new Prime Minister Marouf Bakhit to launch a "genuine political-reform process." On Friday night, Bakhit lamented the day of violence. He told state television that the day's events were "painful and harmed Jordan's image that we struggled to preserve over the past weeks." And he blamed it on the IAF: "We have convincing evidence that they were the organizers of the event, and I say to them now, Stop playing with fire."

The Islamist group has been accused of trying to foment disorder while the country adapts to the new government put in place in February by King Abdullah. Many wealthier citizens dismiss the movement as extremists trying to stir up trouble. Last week, the IAF boycotted Bakhit's 53-member National Dialogue Committee, created as a forum to mull Abdullah's proposed political reforms, particularly in regards to elections and the formation of political parties, both of which have headlined activists' agenda. Tensions have run high between the IAF and the new government since it was named. The Islamists are joined in their protests by lower- and middle-class groups, including teachers who want unionization and poor day laborers seeking higher wages.

And a new wave of support for the opposition has come from thousands of young activists calling themselves the March 24 movement — many of whom were caught up in Friday's violence — who have expressed frustration at the new government's slowness in responding to weekly calls for reform. Officials counter that Abdullah's revamped government is a new entity and needs more time to decide how best to meet demands. "In the next week we'll see the same thing we just saw — the protesters will be active, and therefore we have to make the reforms," says Samir Habashneh, Jordan's Minister of State and a former Interior Minister. "But we need time. It's not going to be immediate. It cannot be tomorrow. We need time to make negotiations about laws."

Pressing matters include democratic elections — Jordan's political process has long been subject to complaints of vote rigging and nepotism — and hurdles surrounding the formation of political parties. According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, only 14 of Jordan's 36 political parties were able to comply with stiff new regulations that went into effect in 2007. They included obtaining certificates of government support and an increase in minimum party membership from 50 to 500. For various reasons, eight of the opposition coalition's 14 parties couldn't comply with the new protocols and had to be dissolved.

Where the two sides do agree is that Abdullah — who has long used his elected government as a valve to release pressure on the political demands placed on the monarchy's doorstep — is to remain on the throne. Total regime change seems not on the cards and the conflict is between the King's elected government and the opposition.

A lawyer who was present during Friday's violence spoke to TIME on condition of anonymity for fear of being jailed. "People were peacefully protesting in the square. We spent the night there singing and holding banners, asking for fast reform — asking them to execute what the King has called on for months now," he says. "No one in the government has been doing anything." Adds Habashneh, "The opposition and the government, all of us agree that the King and his system are good. Our different viewpoints are not about the issue of the kingdom but about the reform." He says there's a risk of further violence unless direct talks are held between officials and the opposition.

But after Friday's rampage, reports of extreme tactics against protesters have turned them further against the government. Meanwhile, PM Bakhit is unwilling to tolerate demonstrations that have a direct effect on the country's economy. (Friday's protest took place in a congested area of downtown Amman, across from the Interior Ministry.) "While we will continue to show due respect to freedom of expression, we are not going to allow any gatherings that cut off traffic and cause any material damage for anyone ... We are not going to accept dialogue that is conducted from the streets," he said Friday evening. Habashneh insists the more radical demonstrators were protesting in bad faith. "We are quite a stable country," he says. "They are painting an opposite picture to the world."