In Jordan, there are fears that home-grown militancy aping Al-Qaeda could grow without effective action to tackle poverty, unemployment and exclusion.
JORDAN’S 9/11 — the Al-Qaeda suicide bomb attacks on three Amman hotels on November 9 that killed 63 people — is still sending shockwaves across the kingdom. A new cabinet charged with waging “all-out war” against terrorism was appointed at the weekend. But Jordan’s pro-western King Abdullah also insisted that his controversial reform programme, known as the “national agenda,” must go forward.
This is a tall order for a country struggling to keep its head above water in a sea of instability. Jordan is caught between Iraq and a hard place — Israel-Palestine. Autocratic neighbours Syria and Saudi Arabia are poor paradigms for democratic change. In addition to its large population of Palestinian origin, up to 400,000 Iraqis have flooded in since 2003. And its close alliance with the United States is domestically divisive.
The new Prime Minister, Marouf al-Bakhit, a former military intelligence chief, said reform and stability were compatible. “My government will maintain the balance between freedom and security,” he promised. But Mr. Bakhit appeared cautious about the national agenda. “We will assess it… and translate feasible recommendations into draft laws that in turn will go through the proper constitutional channels,” he told Jordanian television.
Jordan’s moderate Islamists, who want electoral reform and greater political freedoms, suggest a proposed anti-terror law could play into the militants’ hands. “There is a need for vigilance but not for a tougher security grip that will only fuel extremism,” the Islamic Action party, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, said last week.
Despite revulsion at the Amman attacks and condemnation of their author, the Jordanian-born Iraqi insurgency leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, there are fears that home-grown militancy aping Al-Qaeda could grow without effective action to tackle poverty, unemployment and exclusion.
The Muslim Brotherhood presented its own “comprehensive national reform” plan last month, calling for increased political pluralism and enhanced powers for parliament. But Bedouin conservatives, a key royal constituency, are wary of the democratic liberalisation that the U.S. wants for Jordan and other Arab states. Jordan’s pro-western establishment and business elites favour IMF-guided market reforms. But they too fear the rising power of non-violent, politicised Islam.
The king’s efforts were in trouble long before November 9, said Professor Marc Lynch in the Carnegie Arab Reform Bulletin. “After six years in power, King Abdullah had little to show for his frequent speeches about reform. His tenure had been characterised by a steady decline in freedoms … Opinion polls reveal widespread alienation, with 80% in one survey [saying] they did not feel safe criticising the government in public,” he said.
That made action on the national agenda even more important now, said the independent International Crisis Group last week. “To minimise the risk of future terror attacks that feed on simmering public dissatisfaction, Jordan should implement long-promised political reforms … The regime should drive a wedge between jihadi and non-jihadi Islamists by promoting a tolerant vision of Islam,” it said.
“The public’s lack of representation and shortage of economic opportunities has fed a romanticised notion of jihad,” said the ICG’s Robert Malley. “The November attacks are a preview of what’s to come unless the government gets serious about reform.”
While King Abdullah appears to understand all this, internal resistance remains formidable, and may have stiffened since the bombings. And the potential of supra-national threats to discourage real change was dramatically illustrated during a weekend trial of Al-Qaeda suspects in Amman.
“Terrorism is a badge of honour on our chests until Judgment Day,” one of the defendants shouted. “We’re pursuing jihad until we uproot you, exterminate your state, until the rule of the king vanishes… Allah is our Lord. You have none. America is your God.”
– Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005
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