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Jordan Feature: "Some Kind of Silence Has Broken" (Fahim)

Protest in Amman, January 2011Kareem Fahim writes for The New York Times:

Since January, when Jordan’s protest movement started holding regular demonstrations, the marches have grown, and persisted, but have never reached a critical mass. Hobbled by infighting and outflanked by King Abdullah II and his security forces, the protesters keep calling for greater freedoms and an end to corruption, but remain frustrated that their regular gatherings — sometimes only two-hour affairs — have hastened no real change.

Their quandary was illustrated in the demonstrations this past weekend here in Amman. On Friday, riot police officers beat demonstrators trying to stage a sit-in during clashes that spilled into a busy market district.

On Saturday, a smaller group of protesters shut down traffic in another part of the city. The police did not interfere, and the gathering dispersed after a few hours. Afterward, opposition leaders were unsure what, if anything, had been accomplished.

The protesters’ demands seem modest compared with their counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia: a reform of the system, not its downfall. And yet, as those countries have evolved to the next stages of their revolutions, Jordanians still seem stuck deciding when, and how hard, to push.

The anger fueling the protests has not dissipated, and if anything, it has grown into broader doubts about the king’s intentions. Those doubts are carefully expressed, since direct criticisms of the king, a close American ally, are banned.

“He does not want to be reformed,” said Labib Kamhawi, a political analyst. “He wants people to accept his definition of reform. During the past six years, corruption was so rampant.” As a result, Jordan almost went bankrupt, he said. The king, he added, “is not accepting that this issue needs to be addressed.”

Zaid el-Fayez, a businessman who attended the demonstration on Friday and who belongs to a tribe considered fiercely loyal to ruling Hashemite family, said: “He can’t see us. He can’t hear us. He’s acting like nothing is happening. Most of the Jordanian people are angry.”

Government officials argue that the king has already responded, promising to amend the Constitution and election and party laws, and move to a system where political parties and not the king appoint the prime minister. They say there is no easy fix to the country’s dire economic problems, and that corruption accusations are convenient scapegoating.

The prime minister, Marouf al-Bakhit, acknowledged the frustrations of the protesters, but said some of the demands, especially regarding corruption, reflected impatience. “They want me to hang someone, and later, look at his case,” he said.

The genesis of the protests in Jordan included a worker’s strike in the port city of Aqaba in 2009 and dissent from retired army officers last year. They started in earnest six months ago, when Mohamed al-Snaid, a water pump operator dismissed from a government job, gathered laborers in Dhiban, south of Amman, to protest poor working conditions. Hundreds of others joined, and a week later demonstrations spread to other cities.

The authorities have occasionally intervened to forcibly contain the dissent. In March, riot police officers and government loyalists injured scores of protesters who had pitched a tent camp intended to imitate Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

The foreign minister, Nasser Judeh, argued that Jordan’s reaction to the protests was mild compared with those of other Arab countries. “It’s very difficult to forget that not a single bullet was fired,” he said. “We deal with things in a civilized way. The system is listening and the system is responding. In Jordan, reform is led by the king.”

But some protest leaders, deeply skeptical, say they plan to escalate both their statements and their activism. Their attempt at a sit-in on Friday seemed to reflect a new approach.

Other activists said that slogans shouted at marches already make more direct references to the king — tying him, for example, to the cheap sale of public land to private companies. “Abdullah, son of Hussein,” goes one chant, heard at protests recently outside of Amman. “Where is the land, where?”

Kamal Khoury, a 25-year-old protester allied with a leftist movement, said: “Something has broken — some kind of silence. More and more people are speaking about the king.”

But the protesters face long odds. Many of their problems are self-inflicted, by a fractured movement that has argued about ideology and tactics. A coalition that includes young people, leftists and workers stopped marching with the Muslim Brotherhood, accusing it of trying to hijack the movement and secretly collaborating with the government.

Jordan’s foreign allies have provided the king valuable cover, including Saudi Arabia, the kingdom’s most generous financial benefactor, and the United States, which provides political and military support. An invitation to Jordan to join a regional grouping of Arab states — also extended to Morocco — is seen as another attempt to strengthen a friendly monarchy in a turbulent times.

The authorities have also undermined the opposition by exploiting Jordan’s deep schism, between so-called East Bank Jordanians and citizens of Palestinian origin, over fears that the Palestinians are trying to take over the country.

And online activists say dissent has brought government hackers to their Web sites or led to arrests. Alaa Fazzaa, a journalist, was arrested in May for linking to a page that advocated naming King Abdullah’s half brother, Prince Hamzah, as crown prince.

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