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The Missing Piece of the Arab Spring jigsaw? What the protests mean for Jordan

The protests in downtown Amman are a restrained affair and do not compete in size to the millions in Tahrir Square, Cairo. In fact, other than on Fridays, it's hard to find any trace of them. Where they do bear resemblance to Egypt, however, is that both began with three demands. In Jordan, at first, the campaigners wanted an anti-corruption drive, free and fair elections and economic reform. Now, though, there are whispers about the King.

On Friday, 1,500 protesters called for the government to "open the corruption files and investigate them". People want a democratic election law, not officials appointed by the monarchy1.  In May, the manufacturers' association Fathi Jaghbir objected to a rise in the price of electricity, the profits of which presumably helped fund Queen Rania's lavish birthday parties in the Wadi Rum desert.

The Royal couple have to some extent responded to the demands of the protesters. Queen Rania's parties are no more. King Abdullah II passed the controversial legislation in question to the government and parliament to amend.

But – and it's a big but – the King did not actually scrap the one-vote system at regional level, nor did he raise the number of proportional representation seats to 50 per cent as demanded. He simply raised them from 12 per cent of 140 seats to 18 per cent of 150 seats2.  It seems as if King Abdullah is confident that the people will accept his version of change; one that seems to be characterised by appearing to accommodate much but which in fact gives very little.

In a shop lined with camel bone necklaces in Petra, I settled down to chat to Basim who lives in a village nearby. "The King is a good man," he told me, although when the benchmark has been Mubarak, Assad or Gaddafi for so long, expectations cannot run too high.

It's the shape that the Arab Spring countries are taking post-revolution that is most worrying. With Jordan's neighbour Syria to the north slipping further and further towards civil war Bashar Assad is an example of the extent to which rulers can go to cling on to power. Egypt to the South has deposed its dictator but the army has dissolved the parliament. In Libya, militias are not yet stable, leaving many pondering the future of the region.

Basim was less positive on the subject of Israel. He said that the Israeli tour operators bring tourists to Jordan on the last few days of their itinerary with a warning not to bring money with them. Basim's attitude reflects a growing awareness amongst Jordanians that the peace deal signed in 1994 with Israel (which included bi-lateral measures for tourists3) is not in their favour.

Of course, domestic issues will take precedence in any reform but the question of Palestine is entrenched in society. The protests in Jordan have further exposed the rise in anti-Israeli sentiment. In May the news that Fayez Tawaneh was the new Prime Minister (a key player in the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty) caused outrage. Campaigners burned American and Israeli flags chanting "death to Israel".4  Now even the small minority of businessmen, many of whom were once detached from anti-Israel emotion, are cutting commercial ties with the Israelis.5

The King is, according to his PR spin, trying to solve the conflict by engaging in talks concerning the region. In January he met with Barack Obama to discuss the peace process between Palestine and Israel; in May, it was  Egyptian foreign minister Kamel Amr's turn for a royal audience.

Perhaps most significantly, last Tuesday Abdullah met with the head of the political bureau of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal.6  It is not a twist of fate that the visit, after thirteen years of hostility, coincided with the victory of Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Egypt has shown itself to be a leader in the region, and as it takes a more pro-Palestine approach than Mubarak before him, for protection it is logical that Jordan follows suit.

So what does this meeting mean for the future of Palestine? An acknowledgement that it is a key player in the region and that negotiation will not continue in its absence? Meshaal has also confirmed that he would not be happy with Jordan as an "alternative homeland" for Palestinians.

Of Abdullah's public allegiance to Arab unity and a resolution of the problem we can be sure. Of his private intentions we cannot. Charity does, after all, start at home. Despite a national census in 2004, the government will not release the official figures for Jordanian citizens of Palestinian descent. As a result, estimates range wildly between 35 and 60 per cent.

Within Jordan, Palestinian-Jordanians are discriminated against, despite their passports. They have limited access to the plum jobs reserved for the Bedouin elite. Many have been subject to a systematic stripping of Jordanian citizenship.7

Some reports have suggested that at best the Palestinians would 'take over' Jordan if allowed to do so. At worst they could use the country as a firing ground from which to initiate a war on neighbouring Israel. The late King Hussein signed the peace treaty in 1994 in part to rebuke Palestinians trying to turn the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan into an alternative homeland.8

So who is Jordan trying to keep happy? That the country makes a significant part of its income from diplomacy is certain. They have no oil and rely on their agreement with Israel for water, 50,000 metric tons of wheat from America, financial aid from Saudi Arabia and reduced price natural gas from Egypt. Some argue that Jordan would not experience a significant outcome from its own Arab Spring and are not prepared to compromise these benefits in order to find out.

But perhaps some people are. Or at least they are prepared to ask that political decisions based on these agreements are made with their best interests in mind, that they see some physical evidence that they exist. Creating an elected parliament and a democratic election system will not spark a full-scale war, or a take-over from one demographic of society; it will give Jordanians more equal rights. Now, the King has the chance to respond to campaigners with real reform.

1 http://jordantimes.com/friday-demonstrations-to-centre-on-elections-law
2 Ibid
3 The Lion of Jordan: The Life of King Hussein in War and Peace, Avi Shlaim, London: Allen Lane, 2007, pg. 537
5 http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/politics/2012/06/the-shattered-peace.html
6 http://english.pnn.ps/index.php/international/2130-mashaal-a-new-phase-between-hamas-and-jordan
7 http://www.thejustice.org/forum/protest-jordan-s-anti-palestinian-measures-1.2873320
8 The Lion of Jordan, pg. 532

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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