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November 26, 2012

Time for Jordan to embracechange

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The Daily Star

---- — It was only a matter of time before the unrest seen throughout the Middle East the past two years spread to Jordan, a longtime U.S. ally.

Peaceful protests throughout Jordan have been growing for weeks, but the spark that ignited the nation’s fury was a Nov. 13 decree by King Abdullah II that raised the price of fuel. Three days of protests followed throughout the kingdom, including one that turned violent in the city of Irbid, where a 23-year-old man was shot and several police officers injured.

Worse yet was the reaction of Jordanian national police chief Hussein al-Majali, who vowed to strike down the demonstrators with an “iron fist” and jailed 157 marchers, who were charged with “threatening to undermine the regime, illegal gathering, and creating civil strife.”

Jordan has a history of filing but later dropping such charges against dissidents simply to send a message. And to his credit, Abdullah II has taken a conciliatory tone and urged compromise with his opposition.

But lip service is one thing; real reform that will hold the Hashemite monarchy accountable is something else. The protesters’ message has been clear: Jordan’s wealth and productivity are being squandered by a corrupt, unresponsive system of political patronage, and Abdullah II seems long on talk of reform but short on action.

“We are not subjects, we are citizens,” protester Mohammad Hadid said on Oct. 6. “These are our rights, and not gifts from the king.”

For now, Jordan’s protests have remained an internal problem free from the sectarian and geopolitical meddling that has turned Syria into an international battlefield. Of course, Jordan’s opposition hasn’t yet felt the need to ask for outside help in toppling Abdullah II. As Syria has shown, this could change quickly if the king refuses to budge.

Abdullah II now has a chance to secure his legacy by giving Jordan what it needs: a peaceful, orderly transition to a constitutional democracy with an independent parliament free from the king’s influence. Unfortunately, President Barack Obama’s administration has been flatly dismissive of Abdullah II’s critics, with State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland essentially telling them to suck it up.

“Economic reform is necessary,” Nuland said after the fuel price protests. “There is always some pain that comes with these things, but it’s a necessary pain this case.”

Jordan does, in fact, need economic reform. But until Abdullah II enacts real political reform, his nation will remain a ticking time bomb. Insular, top-down dictatorships almost always end up imploding, often in a sudden, unpredictable manner. Our “devil you know vs. the devil you don’t” policy toward Jordan’s king and his opponents is a false dichotomy that could make a delicate situation even worse.