David E. Smith
In political terms they are, quite literally, the quick and the dead. They are the rapidly expanding club of former ministers of King Abdullah II — several hundred, by some estimates — who came to the well, drank as best they could and were then sent home to think about what they’d done wrong.
They sign on for just a limited season, aware that they are scapegoats in suits, cloned to take the rap whenever another palace policy bites the dust and the public demands fresh blood.
“You appoint governments and then you change them like knickers,” says a once important official. “A new team arrives and spends a few months blaming its predecessors and then the same thing happens all over again. There’s no policy, no vision. It’s just a way to buy time.”
So there are currently few incentives for climbing Jordan’s political tree. The average career expectancy of a prime minister has fallen to around eight months — hardly long enough to give birth to a cogent thought, let alone an innovative policy.
Imagine the hapless head of government, all but dead on arrival in his office, staring disconsolately day after day at his telephone, wondering only when someone will be instructed to call him a cab.
Ludicrous thought? Perhaps. But the swift demise of three governments in the last two years, nine since King Abdullah mounted the throne, would tend to support such an image.
Jordanians are unimpressed. We are on the brink, say many, of nothing good.
One former official, says the king is desperately short of friends.
“The tribes of the south don’t like him because he’s upset their system of patronage and taken away the non-jobs for which they were handsomely paid. The Islamists don’t like him because they say the elections have been rigged and they’re clamoring for political reform. Attempts to get the minority of liberals to form a bloc in parliament are going nowhere.”
As for King Abdullah’s past associates: “Everyone was dismissed in a humiliating way. People are no longer willing to do him any favors.”
To be frank, humiliation is relative. Some ministers were sent packing with handsome payoffs — four or five cars, a generous slab of land and a grand mansion. And yet in this part of the Middle East, dignity is still more highly prized than bling. and several ousted ministers claimed the palace had insulted them not just to their face but behind their back as well.
For now, the club of the once-powerful is collectively shaking its head at the king’s loss of authority at home and his diminishing international status. One member likened him to Scheherazade in “One Thousand and One Nights” who had to keep telling stories to prevent her head being cut off in the morning.
“Our king is telling one story to the tribes, another to the Islamists, another to the Americans and another to the Palestinians,” said the former official. “But they’re all different stories.” He shrugs. “How long can that go on?”
What may save King Abdullah for a while are the almost endemic divisions among his critics and the lack, so far, of any visible alternative. But there is widespread agreement that the Islamists — buoyed by success in Tunisia and Egypt — will increasingly call the shots in Jordan and other Arab states.
“In a year’s time,” said one ex-official, “they will control most of the governments in this part of the world.”
In an office high above Amman, I ask a prominent member of the clique if the king could eventually be pushed off the throne. He chooses his words carefully. “It’s probable,” he replies. “Look at what has happened in just a few months. Who thought Mubarak would fall? Or Ben Ali?”
But the real changes in this region are about more than personalities. The fact is that the Arab revolutions have kicked a gaping hole in the world’s most intricate diplomatic puzzle — a set of incredibly complex alliances, threats, illusions and understandings that has somehow prevented the Middle East from destroying itself for half a century — and it now urgently needs to be rebuilt.
Jordan’s ex-statesmen don’t have to live in the Holy Land to read the writing on the wall. They know that Washington is only interested in the new winners.
“America will deal with the Islamists or anyone else who can deliver what they want,” says a former palace insider. “That’s always the way.”
What some also acknowledge is that if King Abdullah were seen to be obstructing Washington’s new relationships, and if his face no longer fitted, the United States might simply let him fall by the wayside.
Between the Ides of March and the Arab Spring is a bad place right now."
Tim Sebastian is chairman and founder of The New Arab Debates.