Sunday, October 23, 2016

The uneasy crown

Discontent is growing at King Abdullah’s increasingly autocratic rule

The Economist



“A TRUE triumph of progress over regression,” claimed King Abdullah, boasting about Jordan’s elections from the UN podium in New York on September 20th, the day his kingdom went to the polls. Many Jordanians thought otherwise. Despite a relentless public-information campaign and the participation of the pro-Islamist Muslim Brotherhood for the first time in nine years, turnout slumped to a dismal 37%, down from 56% at the election before. In parts of Amman, the capital, barely one in five of those eligible to vote bothered to cast a ballot.
The low turnout is a sign that many people saw the elections as a waste of time. The king swiftly reappointed the same unelected cabinet with only a few minor alterations, and since then has proceeded to push through a host of decrees. Wise but unpopular decisions to buy gas from Israel and to revise the school curriculum by removing troublesome Koranic verses were issued as decrees.

Ever since it was fashioned by Britain after the first world war, Jordan has served as a pro-Western outpost and a buffer keeping its petulant neighbours at bay. But as it transforms from empty deserts roamed by Bedouin into a populous Arab state, the kingdom shows signs of strain. Economically and politically it is struggling to make the transition, say critics; “plucky little Jordan” is acquiring some of the attributes of the authoritarian regimes that surround it in all directions.
In the absence of a credible opposition, Jordanians are starting to look for less established ways to make their voices count. Across the kingdom, protesters have taken to the streets to denounce the gas deal and education reform, despite a heavy police presence. On October 9th riots erupted in Quwaismeh, a suburb of Amman, after a series of police raids there. And with the Brotherhood, Jordan’s historically pro-royal Islamist movement, widely seen as compliant and divided, there are signs that the aggrieved are finding more extreme outlets. Islamic State flags have been spotted flying in Salt, an old trading town west of Amman.
The kingdom’s tranquillity is threatened in other ways, too. Crime is climbing. At the end of September a well-known journalist, Nahid Hattar, was shot dead on the steps of Amman’s courthouse before a hearing on blasphemy charges; the killer was an education-ministry official. In rural areas, where elections are fiercely contested as tribal shows of strength, the losers have blocked roads and clashed with police. “The ballot boxes were stolen,” says Hind al-Fayez, a candidate who accused the interior minister of corruption and then lost her bid for re-election. “They were carried away by thugs wearing masks before the eyes of the security forces.”
Ms Fayez has gone to court alleging that the vote was rigged, but even if the result is reversed she says she will not take her seat. “Street movements have more power than parliament,” she says. Other disillusioned politicians are also challenging the system. A former parliamentarian from Tafila, in southern Jordan, is trying once again to register a new party calling for a true constitutional monarchy. Marwan Muasher, a once loyal foreign minister, has launched a campaign for citizens’ rights.
Jordan’s Western benefactors play down the unrest. “Little flashpoints,” says a diplomat. But others wonder whether, after four years of successfully managing the turbulence of the Arab spring, the country is wobbling.
Economic hardship has accompanied the political. Growth has fallen to less than 2%. Public debt has leapt to 93% of GDP since the Arab spring. A fresh bout of tax and price increases on essentials like water and bread is in the offing, as part of a loan deal with the IMF. A huge refugee influx from Syria increases the battle for jobs and resources. Economic trouble in the rich Gulf states, particularly in Saudi Arabia, suggests worse could be coming. Aid, tourism, investment and remittances (the last alone worth 14% of GDP), are all sharply down. “The economy is based on foreign aid,” says Samer Tawil, a former economy minister. “We cannot prosper without it.”
Years of price rises and subsidy cuts have eroded the kingdom’s once-comfortable middle class. Amman, where almost half of the country’s 9m people live, is the Arab world’s most expensive capital, but salaries are among the lowest. Cuts to education and health services feed discontent.
The spectre of a friendly monarch under pressure has long induced external patrons to stump up cash for Jordan. But for all its Western orientation, the kingdom remains deeply conservative. Fewer women go to work than in Saudi Arabia. Mr Hattar’s killer might have been a lone wolf, but social media was full of support for him. Thousands of Jordanians are waging jihad abroad and might one day come back and wage it at home. Jordanians felt the regional storm had passed them. Now they are fretting again about how strong their borders are, and what depth of support the jihadists could expect should they come.

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