July 21, 2013

David Rohde: Arab Spring chilly in Jordan

Jordanians are frightened by what they see to the north in Syria and to the southwest in Egypt.

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"It's all about 'I'll vote for this guy because I'm in his tribe,' " the king said in the Atlantic story. "I want this guy to develop a program that at least people will begin to understand."

But critics insist Abdullah's reforms are illusory. Jordan has a prime minister and an elected lower house of parliament, but the regent can fire the prime minister and dissolve parliament at will. In the past five years, he has sent six prime ministers packing.

Luckily for Abdullah, Jordan's wing of the Muslim Brotherhood is proving as politically clumsy as its Egyptian brethren. The Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood boycotted legislative elections this year. A decent turnout allowed Abdullah to declare the elections credible and left the country's largest opposition group without a voice in parliament.

At the same time, as fighting rages in Syria and Secretary of State John Kerry pushes for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Washington needs Abdullah. Calls for reform from Washington have grown muted of late.

"In 2011, they were saying do reform and do it quick," said Blecher, the ICG analyst. "The message is much weaker now."

Vast economic problems remain in Jordan. Next month, the government will carry out a long delayed, International Monetary Fund-mandated increase in electricity prices. When an IMF required cut in fuel subsides was enacted last fall, riots erupted.

Believing that kings and generals can bring instant stability to today's Middle East is fanciful. Abdullah must enact sweeping economic reforms, crackdown on corruption and begin to cede power to an elected government. And Washington should encourage him every step of the way.

The clock cannot be turned back in the Middle East. In the short term, more turmoil lies ahead. In the long run, growing economies, not growing authoritarianism, will foster stability.

Maine native David Rohde is a columnist for Reuters, a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and a former reporter for The New York Times and Christian Science Monitor.

 

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