Raad Adayleh, File, Associated Press
AMMAN, Jordan — For Jordan's King Abdullah II, preventing the Arab world's wave of uprisings from washing into to his country has been an exercise in careful calibration — easing his absolute grip on power just enough to defuse protests.
Upcoming parliamentary elections, the centerpiece of the king's reforms, will be a crucial test of his policy in the face of powerful Islamists' demands for more public say in politics.
The Muslim Brotherhood has announced it will boycott the election, saying reforms enacted by the king that could loosen his loyalists' domination of the parliament and give the body somewhat greater authority do not go far enough. The palace says it won't go any further and insists the vote will go ahead even without the country's largest opposition group participating.
The Brotherhood is threatening more protests demanding greater changes that would open the door for it to reach a long-held ambition of forming a government in this close U.S. ally, one of only two Arab nations that have a peace treaty with Israel. The test for it will be whether it can step up a protest movement that has been low-scale and mild in a country where the king has deep-rooted support among powerful Bedouin tribes.
Earlier this month, hundreds of young, bearded Brotherhood activists marched through downtown Amman demanding the election law be changed. "Revolution is headed to Amman," they shouted, gesturing with their fists and choking traffic while walking in the bustling streets under a simmering sun. Passers-by stopped to watch.
For the past year and half, protests have drawn only a few hundred participants in Amman, which is inhabited by a mix of poor Bedouins and others of Palestinian origin who in theory would be more sympathetic to reform calls. The numbers are lower in other cities in northern and southern Jordan, where tribal affiliation is stronger.
But, inspired by the rise of Islamists and the Brotherhood in Egypt and Tunisia after the ouster of those country's longtime leaders, Jordan's branch of the Brotherhood "sees the time is opportune to stage a quick comeback to the limelight in Jordanian politics," said political analyst Labib Kamhawi.
"The Brotherhood is on the saddle and in the race for power," he said. "They are trying to force the hands of the regime to give enough concessions for them to become the government of the day."
Activists warn that the government must be more responsive or else the situation could escalate.
"Jordan is sitting on a powder keg," warned Ahmed Alawneh, a 19-year-old technology student who is a member of a popular movement of young Jordanians eager for change.
"Our calls for genuine reform, giving us a say in politics, are falling on deaf ears and this is only pushing us to the edge," he said.
Wary that a widespread public desire for greater democracy could eventually flare strongly on the streets, the king and his government insist they are sincere on reform. Abdullah has made the parliamentary elections — expected at the end of the year though no date has officially been set — the centerpiece of efforts to stave off a revolt similar to those that have toppled other Arab rulers.
Abdullah made scores of changes, including amending a third of the constitution. The changes give parliament a greater say in choosing the prime minister and appointing a Cabinet, a task that used to be sole prerogative of the king. Still, Abdullah will have final say over the choice. The government's powers to dissolve parliament and issue temporary laws in its absence have also been curbed.
Critics say the moves are insufficient.
"It's a drop in the ocean," said Hamza Mansour, leader of the Islamic Action Front, the Brotherhood's political arm.
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