Saturday, February 5, 2011

What the tribal leaders in Jordan are saying

"MAFRAQ, Jordan — The tribal elders sat in their gowns and keffiyehs, fingering worry beads and smoking cigarettes, an immense woven image of King Abdullah II on a wall above their heads.

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The conversation, at a private home by request, was about politics. What did these Bedouins of the Zubeidi clan, a backbone of Jordan’s monarchy, think about the current instability in light of events in Egypt and Tunisia?

The answers began as scripted recitals: “We have absolute loyalty to the Hashemites,” referring to the royal family; “We will never allow instability”; “No Jordanian will ever negotiate against this regime.” But once lunch appeared — huge platters of rice and lamb, eaten by hand, standing — everything changed.

“We are living a big lie,” one sheik whispered. “This king is hopeless,” said another. “The security police called us up and told us not to meet with you,” said a third. “But we have tongues and we will speak.”

Buffeted by the forces at play across the region — rising prices, a bulging underemployed youth population, the rapid spread of information and resentment, an unaccountable autocracy — Jordan is on edge. All eyes are on the king, to see if he will carry out the reforms promised this week when he fired his cabinet, and whether such steps will in any case be enough to calm the rising tide of frustration.

What is most striking right now in Jordan is that the very system of the monarchy seems open to question. This is partly because of what is happening elsewhere in the region, but also because of growing discontent with King Abdullah and his wife, Queen Rania.

King Abdullah’s father, King Hussein, who ruled for 46 years, enjoyed near adoration by his people.

“The king and queen are under severe attack, which used to be completely taboo,” said Labib Kamhawi, a political analyst and human rights advocate. “I don’t see imminent danger here like in Egypt and Tunisia. But all the symptoms are there.”

The reason few expect any sudden widespread revolt is that the concerns and complaints of the different constituents are not only distinct, they are often contradictory. The monarchy therefore faces little risk of opponents coalescing into the kind of movements seen in Tunisia and Egypt.

In addition, the king maintains his distance from the complaints by allowing blame to fall on government ministers, whom he replaces at will.

For weeks several thousand demonstrators turned out on Fridays, calling for a new prime minister. After one was appointed this week, rally organizers were divided on how to respond. Some thought he should be given a chance.

Friday’s demonstrations included only several hundred people, mostly followers of the Muslim Brotherhood, who turned out in pouring rain.

The country’s main constituencies are the so-called East Bankers or tribes, and the Palestinians who constitute a majority of the nation’s six million people. East Bankers, the country’s original inhabitants, dominate the civil service, especially the security forces, while the Palestinians rule in the private sector.

Economic reform to bring Jordan in line with the global marketplace has tended to benefit the Palestinians, while the East Bankers — the core of the monarchy’s support — rely on the government payroll.

Last year, 82 percent of the government’s budget went to civil service salaries and military pensions, meaning that the room to maneuver to increase such payments is negligible. But that is what the tribes have been demanding, along with promises that the Palestinian population not be permitted to grow.

Last month, to calm the tribes, King Abdullah promised tens of millions of dollars that he did not have to improve their situations.

Meanwhile, the king and the new prime minister, Marouf al-Bakhit, have been casting a wide net, talking with Islamists, teachers’ unions and leftists and promising accountability. The election law, they say, will be fairer, the public gatherings law will abolish the requirement for prior permission, and the fight against corruption will get serious.

In a palace statement on Thursday, the king acknowledged that previous efforts at reform had “stumbled.” Some seemed pleased with the promises and said that King Abdullah was acting in time to save Jordan and himself. Others say he is simply picking low-hanging fruit and say the moves are superficial.

Much of the anger against the king and his wife focus on accusations of extravagant lifestyles and tolerance of corruption."

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