Jordan monarchy faces growing challenges

May 16, 2012 at 3:22 PM
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AMMAN, Jordan, May 16 (UPI) -- Jordan's Queen Rania is coming under mounting criticism over alleged corruption in the Hashemite kingdom's political elite as the pro-Western monarchy faces major challenges to introduce reforms and scrap the 1994 peace treaty with Israel.

The 41-year-old queen, whose parents are Palestinian, has long faced accusations she was playing too prominent a role in running the largely desert and highly vulnerable state squeezed between the larger powers of Israel, Syria and Saudi Arabia.

But as King Abdullah II, who she married in 1993 when he was a prince not then in line for the Hashemite throne, has sought to ride out the political turbulence from pro-democracy uprisings that have convulsed the Arab world since January 2011, she has become more of a target for popular ire.

The normally high-profile queen, a stylish, cosmopolitan beauty who was born in Kuwait, has been advised by Jordan's powerful security service to adopt a lower profile to deflect criticism of the monarchy at a time of regional turmoil.

Abdullah, who ascended the throne in 1999 after the death of his father, King Hussein, has repeatedly pledged to introduce sweeping democratic reforms.

But so far he has failed to produce. He has sought to deflect criticism by blaming the governments he appoints. So far he has gone through 10 prime ministers -- three in the last 18 months since the Arab Spring began.

The last to go was Awn Shawkat al-Khasawneh, who suddenly resigned April 26 after six months.

That was a major setback for Abdullah's efforts to maintain stability in the face of the regional upheaval while maintaining as much power as he can for the monarchy established by Britain after World War I.

Khasawneh, a respected international jurist, was apparently the victim of a power struggle with the kingdom's powerful security service, the General Intelligence Directorate.

The pace of political change has been glacial and talk of meaningful parliamentary democracy, where government would be formed on a parliamentary majority rather than the whims of the monarch, has all but vanished in recent months.

The king, once beyond public criticism, is now coming under direct attack, along with his wife, who is also being accused of corruption. High unemployment and economic woes fuel the growing anger.

Abdullah blamed Khasawneh for dragging his feet on reforms the king says he ordered him to introduce.

But political insiders say Abdullah privately concedes his agenda of gradual reforms has been blocked by powerful elements within the security establishment.

These shadowy figures are determined to prevent Islamists, the most organized opposition group, from making the major political gains their brethren have made in Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia.

Abdullah's innate caution has been heightened by the bloodbath in Syria, Jordan's powerful and often aggressive northern neighbor.

More than half Jordan's 6.5 million population are of Palestinian origin, many of them refugees bitterly opposed to the 1994 peace agreement.

The protests are largely peaceful and tame by Middle Eastern standards, but they mask a growing discontent.

There is also stiff opposition from the Bedouin tribes, bedrock of support for the monarchy.

They feel threatened by the largely urban Palestinian business class that has amassed considerable power and because they fear Israel's seeking to drive Palestinians out of the West Bank to turn Jordan into a Palestinian state.

The king's appointment of a prominent conservative, Fayez Tarawneh, to succeed Khasawneh has heightened public anger. Tarawneh is seen as a royal yes-man who won't press for reforms.

In recent days there has been a nationwide surge of protests by Islamists and leftists demanding the abrogation of the peace treaty.

They've been doing that for 18 years. But these days, the mood is becoming darker and more aggressive as other Arab states topple longtime rulers and Israel stalls the peace process.

"For the moment, the opposition calls are for reform rather than regime change, but the signs are becoming clear that Abdullah has failed to understand the new pressures unleashed by the Arab Spring," said British analyst Julien Barnes-Darcy.

Columnist Lamis Andoni also fears the worst. "The regime's reached the conclusion -- I think it's a miscalculation -- it can carry on without making fundamental changes," she said.

"It's betting the protest movement will get weaker and that it can fall back on its traditional power base of tribal leaders. … But the reality is the economic situation will undermine those assumptions."

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