By Tobias Buck
King Abdullah held on to the brown leather folder for only the briefest of moments, as if grasping a hot stone, before passing it to his son. Crown Prince Hussein, too, wasted not a moment before handing the elegantly bound document, containing 42 proposed amendments to the Jordanian constitution, to the official at his side.
The monarch’s broad smile and effusive rhetoric at a palace ceremony in the capital Amman on Sunday told a different story, however: “The recommendations concerning provisions of our constitution that have been presented here today to me is solid proof of Jordan’s ability to revitalise itself,” he said. The country, he added with visible pride, was “heading confidently towards the future to build the new Jordan”.
The proposed changes to the 1952 constitution are the work of a panel of experts established this year by the palace. Though they fall short of dismantling the king’s sweeping powers, they have been welcomed by most reform activists as a step in the right direction. The changes include the creation of a constitutional court, independent election oversight, steps to curb the powers of the secretive security courts and making it harder to dissolve parliament – measures long demanded by the opposition.
Important as they are in themselves, the proposed reforms also serve a much larger purpose. They represent a crucial part of Jordan’s answer to the wave of political unrest that has swept the Arab world this year – and that has triggered street demonstrations and unusually frank calls for change in the kingdom itself.
Jordan’s pro-democracy protests might seem timid set against the bloody convulsions in neighbouring Syria or faraway Libya. But even inside the royal palace, no one doubts that regional turmoil and domestic discontent have presented a searing challenge to the regime as it seeks to balance a desire to preserve stability with the public’s growing demands for economic and political reform.
It is a balancing act that has repercussions far beyond the borders of the Hashemite kingdom. For a start, Jordan is widely seen as a test case for the ability of Arab regimes to pursue democratic reforms from within the system. Unlike other Arab dynasties, King Abdullah’s can still draw on a reservoir of legitimacy and goodwill. Some believe this gives the country a chance of engineering a peaceful and incremental transition to democracy – if the right decisions are made now.
Jordan matters to governments in the region and beyond, furthermore, because it has long played a uniquely important strategic role in the Middle East. Amman is a staunch western ally, a significant US client and a reliable partner for both Israel and the Palestinians. It also enjoys excellent relations with the conservative monarchies and sheikhdoms of the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia.
As one senior western diplomat in Amman points out: “The overriding interest of all these countries is the same: keeping Jordan stable.”
Indeed, the kingdom serves as an invaluable buffer for Israel and the Gulf states alike, shielding them from the chaos that so often torments the region. Israeli leaders, in particular, worry deeply about their eastern neighbour: the future of Israel’s alliance with Egypt is already in doubt, potentially leaving Jordan as its only partner in the Arab world.
Fear of turmoil is not confined to Jordan’s royal palace and allies abroad, however; it is deeply ingrained in society. “Nobody here wants a civil war or chaos or even instability,” says Oraib al-Rantawi, the director of the Al-Quds Center, a reformist think-tank in Amman.
Many analysts and diplomats point to Jordan’s societal make-up as a big factor. It is split between established East Bankers, or trans-Jordanians, and marginalised West Bankers, Jordanians of Palestinian origin. The two groups each account for roughly half the population of about 6.5m, and frequently eye one another with suspicion. The events of Black September in 1970, when Palestinian militants challenged the rule of King Hussein, Abdullah’s father, sparking a brief but bloody civil war, are etched deeply into political consciousness.
“We don’t want to make a leap into the unknown,” says Nawaf Tell, a former Jordanian diplomat who now heads the Center for Strategic Studies in Amman. “Countries like Tunisia and Egypt can afford uncertainty – but Jordan can’t.”
The fear – shared by East Bankers and West Bankers alike – is that any challenge to the regime will unleash confrontation between the two sides. Indeed, the fledgling opposition movement was dealt a severe blow in March, when a protest camp in the centre of Amman came under attack from East Bank “loyalists”. The clashes were sparked by rumours the protests were a Palestinian-led effort to weaken the monarchy. The charges had little grounding in reality (most opposition activists were themselves East Bankers) but they forced protest leaders to back down all the same.
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Last month, street protests returned to the capital: one took place outside the royal palace as King Abdullah was hailing the reform proposals. But even opposition activists admit they are a long way from leading a mass movement. The regime clearly has played its part in calming the situation. Since the start of the year, the king and his governments have taken care to show, through a well-publicised blizzard of measures and manoeuvres, readiness to address popular discontent.
In January, the government announced it would raise public sector salaries and pensions, and bolster food and energy subsidies. In February, King Abdullah sacked the unpopular government and appointed a new prime minister. He went on to establish the constitutional reform panel and a separate national dialogue committee. The latter reported back in June, suggesting modest revisions to electoral and political party law. The king was quick to endorse the proposals, and promised speedy implementation. Now, in the most important step to date, he has signalled his readiness to rewrite the constitution.