Jordan navigates warily in turmoil of Arab Spring

By Tim Sullivan

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, July 3 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this June 24, 2011 file photo, protesters shout slogans demanding an end to government corruption during a demonstration by opposition parties in front of the prime minister's office in Amman, Jordan. The unrest of the Arab Spring has thrown much of the Middle East into turmoil, but a handful of countries have found ways to prevent or calm the anger of the streets. At the heart of the political standoff in Jordan is a half-British king and darling of Western governments who is trying to avoid the tumult.

Nader Daoud, File, Associated Press

AMMAN, Jordan — At the traffic circle in front of the prime minister's office, demonstrators still crowd the streets every week after Friday prayers. Six months since the protests in this desert kingdom started, hundreds of people still join in weekly chants calling for political reform. They still hold up signs demanding an end to government corruption.

But after about an hour of angry speeches, with 100 or so unarmed policemen watching from a polite distance, the protesters shake hands and head home. Friday is the weekend in Jordan, and even demonstrators want to get home to their families.

The protests of the Arab Spring have shaken much of the Middle East, but a handful of countries have found ways to prevent or calm the anger of the streets. Most prominent is Saudi Arabia, the oil behemoth that has headed off potential opposition by spreading the wealth, spending tens of millions of dollars to boost salaries.

Then there is resource-starved Jordan, with its ragged deserts and sputtering economy, where the massive and sometimes-violent protests of early 2011 have quieted to the weekly demonstrations.

At the heart of the political standoff is a half-British king trying to avoid the tumult. A darling of Western governments who celebrate him and his Palestinian queen as modern celebrity-monarchs, King Abdullah II has ushered in little democratic reform despite years of promises.

The king sits at the helm of a sprawling intelligence service, a carefully lubricated patronage system and a U.S.-trained military. The economy is largely dependent on aid from Washington and Saudi Arabia. Government opponents say their phones are bugged and houses watched. At times, such as during national and municipal voting in 2007, his regime has blatantly rigged elections, critics say.

In Jordan, the king does face increasing criticism, but even the angriest political protesters seldom hold him responsible for their country's troubles. His family dynasty, the Hashemites, rose to power centuries ago as the protectors of the Muslim holy city of Mecca. That, combined with the elaborate system of patronage aimed at powerful local leaders, has earned them immense loyalty among the Bedouin tribes who make up the traditional core of Jordanian society.

"The king is not a problem for us," said Anis Musharbash, a courtly, gray-haired doctor and communist party member at a recent Friday protest.

"Who wants a revolution?" asked Musharbash, holding out his hands as he was firing a rifle. "Pow! Pow! Pow! Pow! Pow!" Then he shook his head: "We just want this country to change, step by step."

It's the central irony of modern Jordan: The man with the most political power is still widely seen as being above the political fray. So while the protesters want large-scale reform — more power shifted from the palace to parliament, an end to government corruption, inflation brought under control — few want an end to Hashemite rule.

"There is a moral contract between the Jordanian people and the Hashemites," said retired general Ali Habashneh, a government critic. "We want them to remain as kings, to secure for us a good life and freedom."

Analysts see few generalizations in the countries that have avoided the full force of the Arab Spring. Different countries have taken different approaches to seeking peace with protesters, whether it's money in Saudi Arabia or legal reform in the tiny sultanate of Oman.

Jordan has a badly troubled economy, but its overall issues are more complex: a divide between the king's Bedouin allies and Palestinian refugee families who want more political power; worries over nearby Israel, which many Jordanians see as a frightening presence; grumbling discontent over Queen Rania, whose beauty and fashion sense make her popular in the West, but who is seen with suspicion in conservative Bedouin circles.

Then there is political reform.

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