AMMAN, Jordan — For Jordan's King Abdullah II, preventing the Arab world's wave of uprisings from washing into his country has been an exercise in careful calibration — easing his absolute grip on power just enough to defuse protests.
Upcoming parliamentary elections, the centerpiece of the king's reforms, will be a crucial test of his policy in the face of powerful Islamists' demands for a more public role in politics.
The Muslim Brotherhood has announced that it will boycott the election, claiming reforms enacted by the king do not go far enough. The reforms could loosen his loyalists' domination of the parliament and give the legislature greater authority. The palace says it will not go any further and insists that the vote will proceed even without the country's largest opposition group participating.
The Brotherhood is threatening more protests, demanding greater changes that would open the door for it to reach a long-held ambition of forming a government in Jordan, a close U.S. ally and one of only two Arab nations that have peace treaties with Israel. The test for the Brotherhood will be whether it can step up a protest movement that has been low-scale and mild in a country where the king has deep-rooted support among powerful Bedouin tribes.
Small protests make little difference
For the past year and half, protests have drawn only a few hundred participants in Amman, which is inhabited by a mix of poor Bedouins and others of Palestinian origin. Protests have been smaller in other cities in northern and southern Jordan, where tribal affiliation is stronger.
Inspired by the rise of Islamists and the Brotherhood in Egypt and Tunisia after the ouster of those countries' longtime leaders, Jordan's branch of the Brotherhood "sees the time is opportune to stage a quick comeback to the limelight in Jordanian politics," said political analyst Labib Kamhawi.
"The Brotherhood is in the saddle and in the race for power," he said. "They are trying to force the hands of the regime to give enough concessions for them to become the government of the day."
Activists warn that the government must be more responsive or else the situation could escalate.
"Jordan is sitting on a powder keg," said Ahmed Alawneh, a 19-year-old technology student who is a member of a popular movement of young Jordanians eager for change.
"Our calls for genuine reform, giving us a say in politics, are falling on deaf ears, and this is only pushing us to the edge," he said.
Election as a centerpiece of reform
Abdullah has made the parliamentary elections the centerpiece of efforts to stave off a revolt similar to those that have toppled other Arab rulers. The vote is expected at the end of the year, though no official date has been set.
The king made scores of changes, including amending a third of the constitution. The changes give parliament greater authority in choosing the prime minister and appointing a Cabinet, a task that used to be a sole prerogative of the king. Abdullah will have final say over the choice. The government's powers to dissolve parliament and issue temporary laws in its absence also have been curbed.
Critics say the moves are insufficient.
"It's a drop in the ocean," said Hamza Mansour, leader of the Islamic Action Front, the Brotherhood's political arm.
He said the opposition wants the parliament to have full powers to form a government.
"We want a strong parliament to be a watchdog over the Cabinet. We want the election law to be changed. We want a national salvation Cabinet comprising loyalists and opposition to supervise the changes. And we want the changes to be made quickly," Mr. Mansour said.
A recently enacted election law brought the dispute between the government and the Brotherhood to a bottleneck. The law gives concessions to the opposition by setting aside 27 of the 150 seats in parliament to be chosen by a nationwide list. The rest of the seats are reserved for representatives from local districts.
Islamists are likely to dominate the national-list seats and get some of the local seats. Pro-government tribal candidates are likely to take most of the local seats, given their strong support from clans and relatives.
Televised appeal for 'Jordanian society'
Abdullah appeared in a rare television interview recently urging the Brotherhood to contest the election, calling it "one of the components of Jordanian society that we are proud of." He even hosted leaders of the terrorist Palestinian group Hamas, who were expelled from Jordan in 1999.
He acknowledged that there "is no country or society that is immune against the danger of chaos." But he insisted that substantial reform will take hold in time. He pointed to the need for Jordan's 23 splintered political parties to coalesce into two or three main groups to better contest elections.
Abdullah has created an independent commission to supervise parliamentary elections, a task once performed by the government. He also has established a constitutional court to monitor the application of more than two dozen amended laws. He changed the election law to encourage a multiparty system and a local law to allow Jordanians to govern their towns by electing mayors and city councils.
The king also revoked restrictions on protests and allowed the formation of a teachers union, previously banned out of fears that it could influence students. He also put his former intelligence chief on trial on corruption charges.
Despite opposing many of the king's policies, the Brotherhood has remained largely loyal to Abdullah's Hashemite dynasty, which claims ancestry to Islam's Prophet Muhammad.