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When the King has room to talk

By       Message Mohammad Aslam     Permalink
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Why it would be primitive for King Abdullah II of Jordan to feel confident about giving advise to his Arab counterparts - considering the determination of the Arab street.

The situation in Syria has been precarious for some time. Sporadic uprisings by sections of the population, armed gangs sniping at security forces, the government sending in the tanks and innocent civilians caught in the crossfire. As if that was not enough, the spectacle of descent into sectarian strife, international sanctions and now suspension from the Arab League; surely means somebody in the Damascus regime could benefit from a more honest and introspective evaluation of the real causes for the breakdown.

But for the neighboring Sandhurst-trained ruler of Jordan, the strength of his own survival, he seems to believe, lies not in defence but in attack. Perhaps this explains his recent advice for Syria's President Assad, whom he asked to step down for the sake of starting a new phase in his country's political life. If they were the words of a rational Arab citizen who was enraged by the prevailing situation in Syria, one would probably have good grounds to reason with him.

But when you're the absolute ruler of a country, albeit under the guise of a constitutional monarchy; your words will certainly make for a sexy soundbite but probative of little else.

Indeed King Abdullah is not a ruler who has suddenly found it difficult to "tear' away his eyes from a fellow Arab ruler's capacity to do evil, or for feeling it's vital to speak out when other Arab neighbours are silent and withdrawn. Israel and America's best friend in the Arab world had failed miserably to utter anything substantive about the earlier uprisings in the region.

So what's behind the turnaround?

As an absolute monarch, ruling is sacrosanct. Jordan is in part of the word where time is measured by the amount of blood spilled, and his heart -- and his work - is in the lust for power. Ever since the early days of the Arab spring, he has secretly been straddling the razor-wire fence in an attempt to ward of the potential for an Arab street rising up at home.

The remarks on Assad reflect nervousness in the Kings court that the continued uprisings will embolden anti-government protests at home. His comments were all about appearing to be on the side of the revolting masses, that he was a champion of peaceful transitions of power and reformist agendas.

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But just like Assad who in February this year said that the political uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt would not spread to his country because of the anti-western alliances it made, the Jordanian ruler should be made aware that opportunistic words will do nothing to deflect opposition at home. And with good reason.

It began with predominantly trade union protests in January 2011 which led to thousands, including Muslim Brotherhood and Leftist parties, pouring onto the streets to demand a reversal of economic policies that were causing hardship to the common man. But rather than send his secret police in and exact a hellish vengeance on those uprising, he realised he needed to strike boldly and go for the jugular. The Prime-Minister was soon sacked.

But as the Arab spring gained momentum elsewhere, the zeal of Jordanian opposition increased. More protests erupted, deaths were reported and hundreds were injured in clashes with the Kings Police. He then tried to alleviate the indifferences by reducing fuel and utility prices, reformed freedom and information laws, and met with senior opposition figures to give the appearance that he was hearing out them out.

But the demonstrations persisted, somewhat sporadically. Demands for stripping the Kings powers including denying him the right to appoint the prime-minister soon became a rallying cry. Frequent clashes broke between pro and anti-government supporters; reports of the Kings motorcade being attacked trickled in but were denied.

The Kings motorcade, we were told, was only ever met with throngs of enthusiastic supporters.

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Over the summer months, violence and police brutality took another twist with the beatings of journalists and protestors alike. However in keeping in line with the presenting a democratic face for his regime, a seldom experience in the Arab world, the government promised compensation and an enquiry into the clashes.

To stave off the demonstration effect from the likes of Egypt and Tunisia, another prime-minister was given the boot and only last month the third incumbent since the uprisings began was appointed.

It's clear there is silent panic in the Royal household. The King understands that despite the western and regional backing he receives, a rule void of human justice and morality will not succeed.   He has so far been lenient, in comparison to his regional counterparts, with the opposition.

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Mohammad I. Aslam is an Editor at the Montreal Review and Ph.D candidate in Political Science at the Department of Middle-East & Mediterranean Studies, King's College London.

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