AMMAN, JORDAN—The bearded man in the leather jacket widens his eyes, rocks back on his feet and looks over at his business partner, who’s standing in the doorway of their tiny shop where they sell traditional head scarves on the corner of a bustling downtown street.
They exchange a few words in Arabic, arguing back and forth, gesturing with their hands and then chuckling.
The first man shrugs his shoulders and looks away, across the lanes of cars and buses honking their horns as they speed along the wet pavement, to the Al-Husseini Mosque, its minarets lit green against the night sky.
“No,” the man in the doorway says, finally, shaking his head as he stares down at the sidewalk. “Not popular.”
The man these shopkeepers speak of — having insisted their names not be used — is His Majesty King Abdullah II, the theoretically constitutional but practically absolute monarch who rules this tiny Middle Eastern land plastered with photographs of his smiling face.
It is forbidden — against the constitution, in fact — to criticize the monarch, his family or his glamorous wife, Queen Rania.
Breaking that taboo is punishable by three years’ imprisonment and means the ruler of the country, known formally as the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, enjoys the kind of immunity — and public displays of devotion — accorded to no one else but Allah.
Another merchant demonstrated this by gesturing to the portrait of Abdullah taped to the wall of his shop, then touching the top of his own head and kissing his hand before returning to wrapping up pitas hot and fresh from the flames of the oven.
But recent events here suggest that Jordanians, like other people in the region, are becoming more outspoken about their severe dissatisfaction with the status quo, even to the point of criticizing the monarchy itself.
“People are talking more openly now,” said Radwan Abdullah, a political analyst in Amman, discussing a king perceived as being out of touch with his people, who want a father figure.
“He is the antithesis of it,” Abdullah says. “Naturally he doesn’t conform with the Western image of leader, nor does he conform to the Arab culture of patriarchal leadership. He is a disaster.”
The real change in the political landscape is not what is happening in the streets and nor what has yet to happen in the palace.
It is what is happening on the lips.
A month of unusual, and loud, protests against the government over widespread corruption, rising food prices and unemployment have already pressured the king into firing the prime minister and his cabinet last week and appointing a new one with the promise, yet again, of political and economic reforms.
Changing the government is nothing new for Abdullah, as he has done so eight times in his dozen years in power, often with little explanation for his choice of replacements.
This time was different because he was bending to the will of the people — with Abdullah publicly acknowledging that earlier efforts at reform had “stumbled” — and that seems to have stemmed the tide of revolt for now.
There were promises to hold more open dialogues and as a result the king even met with the Muslim Brotherhood and its Jordanian political wing, the Islamic Action Front, for the first time in nearly a decade.
Most are willing to give the new government a chance to live up to its promises. Indeed, despite the recent demonstrations, Jordan does not seem poised to follow in the footsteps of Egypt and Tunisia. The main reasons: the monarchy is seen as a stabilizing influence that helps maintain a balance between different groups with often contradictory agendas in the country of 6.3 million.
Jordan’s two main constituents are the East Bankers, or tribes, and the Palestinians. The former dominate the civil service and are traditionalists, while the latter make up the business class and represent about half the population.
But people from all camps vow to keep the pressure up, to make sure the reforms are real and happen quickly.
“It’s a crisis of confidence between the system and the people and they need . . . to convince people that they are real and serious in providing what it is they are looking for, which is a dignified life,” says Basil Okoor, the managing editor of the independent website Ammon News, which he co-founded five years ago, a bold move that eventually cost him his job with the state-owned national broadcaster.
“People’s requirements are realistic, just and necessary,” says Okoor, with one eye on the flat-screen television mounted on the wall, where Al-Jazeera is showing the crowd in Cairo’s Tahrir Square waiting for what people would ultimately consider a disappointing speech by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Thursday night. “Now is the time to really respond to these requests before things intensify and build up and protests grow and people will start mixing up between talking about the government and reform and might transfer to talk about the regime itself.”
Okoor was tense, because talk about the regime itself had already begun and he was in the difficult position of being its messenger.
It had been an eventful few days for Ammon, which provides news in English and Arabic from a tiny newsroom equipped with couches, a boardroom table and a few computers.
It began with a groundbreaking fax.
The a three-page statement in Arabic, signed by 36 people described as national figures from the Jordanian tribes — who make up roughly 40 per cent of the population — decried the state of the country.
“What Jordan is going through in terms of particular historic, sudden and radical changes is the result of accumulation of policies that have been practised for long by Arab regimes against the Arab peoples, including corruption, obstinacy, tyranny, injustice and oppression, torture and insult to the personal and national dignity, silencing and plundering of national resources and capabilities of its people,” said the statement, according to a report in the English version of Ammon News.
That was nothing new, really, and many of the complaints that followed — even the warnings that a newly fearless people of Jordan, empowered by a “communications revolution” including satellite television and the Internet, could drive the country the way of Tunisia and Egypt if things did not change — had already been made by those demanding reform.
The most surprising aspect of the statement was that it went after Queen Rania, an ethnic Palestinian and a fashion icon in the West, denouncing the lavish birthday party she had in the desert of Wadi Rum at the expense of taxpayers, accusing her and her family of corruption and meddling in government affairs.
Reaction was swift and harsh.
After the story was posted, the newsroom received a call from the “authorities,” Okoor says, stressing more than once that is the word he is to be quoted as saying.
(Speaking about the mukhabarat, or secret police, in Jordan is another taboo.)
The authorities asked Ammon News to remove the story.
“We said the people have the right to know what is going in their country and we will not remove it,” Okoor says, defiant and impassioned over a point most Western journalists take for granted.
Someone deleted the story overnight. Then the website was shut down. The official Petra News Agency reported an anonymous government source denying security agents had hacked into it, but after a sit-in outside the state-sanctioned Jordanian Press Association and some quiet negotiations, the site and story have been restored.
“These people have fallen into the trap of incitement, imperiling Jordan’s social fabric and posing a threat to the national unity,” the pro-government Jordanian Press Association, a professional body to which all reporters in the country are supposed to belong, said in a statement Thursday that slammed foreign media for picking up the story. “The JPA is fully aware that the citizens of Jordan, from all walks of life, are fully attached to their political leadership and regime, which have always led them through testing times.”
Banan Malkawi, the English-language editor at Ammon News who translated the tribesmen’s statement, says satellite TV and the Internet are helping blur what Arab culture refers to as khutut hamraa, or red lines, representing the outer limits of permissible behaviour.
“These red lines are becoming virtual,” says Malkawi, who was raised in the United States and admits she is still trying to figure out where some of them are. “Jordanians who maintain these red lines inside Jordan are exposed to transgressions against these red lines outside, and it’s becoming blurred for them.
“And this is causing people to become a lot more outspoken in really pushing towards knocking on those red lines.”
While there are signs of a growing comfort with open criticism, no one, not even in private, expresses a serious desire to send Abdullah packing the way of Mubarak and ousted Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
“I think there is a consensus that the regime is a fact of life in Jordan, and people do not want to challenge the existence of the regime,” says Fares Braizat, a professor of political science at the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies in Doha, Qatar. “But definitely you have a growing number of people and blocs willing to challenge the regime’s policies.”
Jordanians are growing frustrated by many of the same things that have increased tensions across the region, including rising food costs, the perception that the government is unaccountable, and vast youth unemployment.
According to the Dubai-based Middle East Youth Initiative, almost one-third of Jordanian men aged 15 to 30 are unemployed.
People with jobs complain about low salaries. “The salaries are not enough for people here,” said the bearded man at the keffiyeh stall, which is located in eastern Amman, the grittier, livelier part of the city compared with the quiet opulence of luxury hotels and modern shopping malls on the other side of town.
“I need a car. I need a house. I need a good job — everything,” he says, counting off his fingers. “In Canada, if you work eight hours every day, it is enough. Here, you work 12 hours and it is still not enough.”
These complaints have been made for years, with many feeling that King Abdullah II has pushed the country towards modernity and relations with the West against the wishes of its more conservative-minded population, and championed the privatization that has been at the heart of corruption scandals. They also argue he has reversed electoral reforms made under his largely adored father, King Hussein, who died in 1999.
Jordanians enjoy security compared to their neighbours. And their treaty with Israel has put them in good standing with the U.S. But analysts say that stability is maintained through a powerful and costly security apparatus.
All of these growing frustrations help to explain why the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt spoke to the psyche of the nation, observers say.
“It was psychological — we thought that we’d become so docile, so resigned to our fate, that nothing could happen,” says Radwan Abdullah. “My forecast was we were all heading towards becoming failed states, like Somalia. We are not as docile as we thought.”
The first sign of revolt, however, came much earlier and from an unlikely place.
Retired military personnel play an important and respected role in Jordanian society, as they represent the tribesmen but are also seen as very close to the regime.
A group of them banded together in 2002 to push for better living conditions for the roughly 140,000 veterans they represent.
They never viewed themselves as politicians or even politically minded, but last year they met the king to press for reforms that went beyond their own desires, issuing a public statement calling for a modern electoral system, progressive taxation and an end to corruption.
“I hope there will be reform, because if we don’t take that step we cannot predict what will happen,” says retired Gen. Ali Habashneh, a key figure on the committee.
And while it is common perception that revolution begins with the young demanding a brave new world, Habashneh explains that many Jordanians believe the country would be better off travelling back in time to an earlier version of the constitution, before amendments concentrated so much power in the hands of the king.
“It’s a disparity from the rest of the world,” Habashneh explains while sipping rich juice squeezed from blood oranges. “We’re asking for the good old days.”
The demands for reform and better economic conditions are shared across the map, but the end goal, the vision of the role of the monarchy in particular, differs across segments of the deeply divided population.
“It is easy to launch and to sustain a revolution in a harmonized society like Tunisia and to a certain extent Egypt, but in a society like Jordan, where half of the population is from East Jordanian origin and the other half from Palestinian origins, they don’t have the same agenda,” says Oraib Al-Rantawi, director of the Al-Quds Centre of Political Studies in Amman. “They don’t have the same priorities. They have something in common, but it’s not enough.
“If you think seriously about any change, you need to be able to set up a national agenda to build a consensus. . . . In Jordan this is not the thing.”
The retired generals, for example, praised the choice of Marouf al-Bakhit as the new prime minister because he is a military man like them instead of a businessman like ousted prime minister Samir Rifai, whom they viewed as one of the so-called technocrats out of sync with their vision for the country.
But the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Islamic Action Front, the main opposition party in Jordan, disagreed with the choice on principle.
They want the prime minister to be elected through a majority of seats in parliament, not appointed by the king, and so reportedly refused when al-Bakhit offered the party a role in the new cabinet.
Zaki Bani Rsheid, who heads the political bureau of the Islamic Action Front, was unequivocal in his demands for an elected government in an interview at party headquarters in Amman this week.
“Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” says Rsheid, adding that it causes a dysfunctional bureaucracy and hurts the people, too.
The Islamic Action Front, despite being the main opposition party, does not hold much sway over the East Bankers, who view it as a foreign movement intent on pushing its socially conservative agenda like it did when it was part of government in the early 1990s.
Yet with so much unrest in the region, every dissenting voice has a microphone, and the Islamic Action Front has been quick to state its demands.
“Tunisia and Egypt had an explosion and there was a revolution,” Rsheid says. “Jordan’s expression of it was a request for reform — real political reform before it is too late.”
Rsheid says what the people really want is a new system — a truer constitutional monarchy, although he adds that Jordan would not be ready for a merely symbolic sovereign like in the United Kingdom.
That idea was echoed on Friday as about 500 protesters — mostly young men — marched through the street leading up to the Al-Husseini Mosque.
They would take turns being carried past the stalls where merchants were calling shoppers to buy their pomegranates or jewellery on this day off in the Muslim world, many beneath their smiling portraits of the king.
They were chanting their support for the people of Egypt, but also calling for their newly appointed prime minister to go, even for the revocation of the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan that has made the West view this country as a good kid in a bad neighbourhood.
“We are showing solidarity for the Egyptian people and the Egyptian revolt, which is now considered an Arab revolt,” said Yousef Akroush, a retired man and social activist in the middle of a crowd outside the mosque.
“Nobody is asking to replace the king nowadays,” said Akroush.
“But we want to change the political system and have a real parliament which represents the ambitions of the people. We don’t just want to change the face and replace X with Y or Z. We want our whole political system to change.”