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.

AMMAN, Jordan - After the Egyptian army toppled President Mohammed Morsi, a member of the U.S. Congress expressed the sentiment of many in Washington.

"The army is the only stable institution in the country," he said.

In the Western media, Arab Spring post-mortems proliferated, including a 15-page special report in The Economist that asked, "Has the Arab Spring failed?" The answer: "That view is at best premature, at worst wrong."

Here in Jordan, Arab Spring inspired protests demanding King Abdullah II cede power to an elected government has petered out. A crackdown on the media that shut down 300 websites last month elicited little protest.

"We are witnessing a swift return to a police state," said Labib Kamhawi, an opposition figure accused last year of violating a law that bars Jordanians from defaming the king. "You will find everything controlled."

Yet analysts, opposition members and former government officials say that the Arab Spring has paused here -- not ended. The underlying economic issues that prompted the protests that toppled governments across the Middle East and North Africa remain in place. Arab rulers and U.S. officials are both mistaken if they think they can rely on generals and regents to produce long-term stability.

"The political energy that was released around the Arab world and Jordan in 2011 has not dissipated," said Robert Blecher, a Middle East analyst with the International Crisis Group. "The problems that gave birth to the Arab uprisings have not been solved."

What, then, is happening in Jordan? Simply put, Jordanians look north to Syria and southwest to Egypt and are frightened by what they see. Brutal civil wars and street clashes have tempered the desire for rapid change. Though Abdullah limits speech here, he is not nearly as brutal as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. And events in Egypt have made young, secular Jordanians loathe to live under the Muslim Brotherhood. In short, Jordanians are waiting.

"I'm less aggressive toward the king because I saw what the Islamists could do, I see what is happening in the region," said Alaa Fazzaa, the editor of one of the shuttered websites. "I'm waiting for the right time to attack."

In a region where 60 percent of the population is under the age of 30, the economic problems are colossal. And a younger generation bent on economic opportunity and basic political rights will not accept a permanent return to authoritarianism. Jordan is a case in point.

The global economic slowdown halved economic growth in Jordan from 6 percent to 3 percent over the last three years. Jordan's official unemployment rate is 12.5 percent, with youth unemployment estimated to be twice that. More than 550,000 Syrian refugees have flooded the foreign-aid-dependent, oil- and water-starved desert kingdom of 6 million.

Oraib al Rantawi, the director of the Al Quds Center for Political Studies here, said that the biggest concerns that Jordanians express in opinion polls are not political.

"The top five priorities for Jordanians are economic," he said. "You will find political reform on number 10 or number 11."

To his credit, Abdullah, 51, is one of the most liberal monarchs in the Middle East. After he ascended to the throne in1999, he was widely hailed as a modernizer. Yet in recent years, his reforms have slowed and popularity ebbed.

A March profile of the king published in The Atlantic provoked fury in Jordan. In the piece, which the palace disputed, the king was quoted as disparaging intelligence chiefs, the Muslim Brotherhood, tribal elders, U.S. diplomats, regional leaders and his own family. He said local politicians had failed to take advantage of reforms he enacted and mocked one nascent party's social and economic manifesto.

"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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