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Jordanians worry protests polarizing their country

- The Washington Times - Monday, April 11, 2011

AMMAN, Jordan | Jordanians are concerned that their kingdom is becoming more polarized, following bloody protests late last month that left one man dead and 120 people injured.

Attacks by pro-government supporters on some 1,000 reform activists at a tent camp modeled after Egypt's Tahrir Square on March 25 and the subsequent crackdown by riot police signaled the worst violence in three months of what had been mainly peaceful demonstrations in this key U.S. Mideast ally and peace partner with Israel.

Street demonstrations demanding more political influence for ordinary Jordanians were inspired by uprisings across the Arab world.

In their weekly protests, youth activists, Islamists and leftist opposition figures call for the resignation of the prime minister and new parliamentary elections. They also want prime ministers chosen through popular elections, instead of appointed by Jordan's King Abdullah II. The king also appoints the entire government except for the lower house of parliament.

Pro-government youth meanwhile ply the streets, horns blaring, their cars covered with Jordanian flags and pictures of the king. Patriotic tunes and slogans fill the airwaves, reminding citizens that Abdullah is considered a direct descendant of Islam's Prophet Muhammad and his legitimacy should not be questioned.

However, unlike other Arab uprisings, protests here have not directly targeted the king. The opposition does not want to bring down the monarchy.

Abdullah has promised to push for reforms and has chastised his prime minister for not moving fast enough, while convening a wide-ranging dialogue committee.

On the committee's agenda is a proposal to revamp a controversial election law that gives more seats to representatives from sparsely populated Bedouin areas, the traditional bedrock of support for the king, at the expense of urban areas that favor the powerful Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm, the Islamic Action Front.

The Brotherhood and Front boycotted parliamentary elections in November, claiming they were unfair and not truly representational of the Jordanian voter.

The battle for reform has gone beyond the streets to threatening exchanges between the pro-government supporters and activists on the Facebook social networking site.

Mohammed al-Masri, an analyst at the University of Jordan's Center for Strategic Studies, said elements in Jordanian society are trying to play the "division card" between Jordanians of East Bank and Bedouin extraction, seen as so-called government loyalists, and those of Palestinian or West Bank origin viewed as agitators for change.

Jordanians of Palestinian origin make up about half of the country's population of six million. Palestinians have fled to neighboring Jordan from successive wars with Israel since 1948.

"If all of these protesters and political powers do not solve the problem of identity in Jordan, protests for more freedoms are not going to gain ground in Jordan," Mr. al-Masri said, observing the most recent reform demonstration in central Amman last Friday.

He said that "collection action" as witnessed in Egypt and Tunisia, which both have homogeneous populations, will not take place here until the problem of national identity is addressed.

Mohammad al-Momani, a political science professor at Jordan's northern Yarmouk University, views the current political struggle for reform differently.

He ruled out such division between Jordanians on the reform agenda. He said differences have emerged more between those espousing change whatever their background and so-called traditionalists who want to maintain the status quo. He said Jordanians from the East Bank and those with Palestinian heritage are both found in each camp.

Mr. al-Momani also said Jordan stands a better chance of achieving change without the kind of violent upheaval witnessed elsewhere in the region because of King Abdullah, a moderate who has taken up the reform mandate.

"One of the most important ways to analyze the Middle East now, including Jordan, is the quality of the leadership. The more flexible it is, the more likely a smooth transition to democracy will be achieved," he said. "Reform is imminent at this point in time."

Mr. al-Masri added that the king should take an even more active role.

"I think the king should be in the driving seat," he said al-Masri. "He should be the leader of these young people, who are calling for their freedoms. This is a historic moment for him, and he can lead this movement."

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