Facing growing criticism over lack of reforms and transparency, Jordan’s King Abdullah has announced an unprecedented crackdown on corruption, sending a number of his former top government officials to prison.
But the clampdown has only increased the appetite of the Jordanians, who continue to press for harsher measures against senior officials suspected of embezzling public funds and abusing their powers.
The king’s hitherto unsuccessful attempts to appease the protesters are designed first and foremost to prevent the Arab Spring from infiltrating the kingdom.
For the past several months, Jordan has witnessed weekly demonstrations calling for far-reaching reforms and an end to financial corruption. Most of the protests have been initiated by the kingdom’s powerful Muslim Brotherhood organization.
At the beginning, King Abdullah did not take the protests seriously. But when some Bedouin tribes who were known for their loyalty to the monarchy started joining the protests, the king finally began to realize that the situation in the kingdom is much more serious than he had thought.
Over the past year, King Abdullah has dismissed two governments in a bid to calm the situation, but to no avail. His recent decision to appoint Awn Khasawneh, a respected judge of the International Court of Justice, as prime minister, has also failed to put an end to the growing protests.
Although most of the protesters in Jordan have thus far avoided calling for regime change, a former parliament member broke the rules by publicly calling for toppling the monarchy.
The man, Ahmed Abbadi, was last week arrested by Jordanian security forces and is now facing up to 15 years in jail if convicted.
Abbadi hails from a powerful Jordanian tribe and his arrest has triggered street clashes between his supporters and police forces in the capital Amman.
Members of Abbadi’s tribe have vowed to stage more protests until the former lawmaker is released.
Political analysts in Amman point out that the king is desperate to restore calm and order that he has gone as far as ordering his security forces to arrest some of his most trusted and loyal officials, including the former mayor of Amman, Omar Maani, and the ex-chief of General Intelligence, Mohammed Dahabi.
The two men were arrested on suspicion of financial corruption as part of the king’s efforts to show that he is serious about reforms and transparency.
Some former prime ministers and cabinet ministers are also being questioned about their role in various corruption scandals over the past decade.
Yet all these measures have failed to convince the demonstrators that the king is indeed serious about improving the situation.
Each arrest and questioning has been followed by more demands from angry Jordanians.
Now many protesters are demanding that the king arrest Bassem Awadallah, one of his closest friends and a former minister of planning and head of the Royal Court, on graft charges.
A Jordanian journalist said that if the king continues to succumb to public pressure, “in the end he will have to fire himself.”
True, King Abdullah has taken a number of measures to fight corruption in his little kingdom. But at the end of the day, Jordan is still far from becoming a democratic country.
This is a country where the king can appoint and fire prime ministers and governments and dissolve an elected parliament any time he wishes. And this is a country where the prime minister — with the approval of the king, of course — appoints newspaper editors and senior journalists.
King Abdullah’s efforts to improve his image were recently marred by the sentencing of an 18-year-old activist to two years in prison for setting fire to a picture of His Majesty King Abdullah II.
The young man, Uday Abu Issa, was tried before a military state court, which found him guilty of “undermining the king’s dignity.”
The king would do well to realize that in the age of the Arab Spring, sending a young man to prison for burning the picture of an Arab leader will only add fuel to the fire. He also needs to understand that the rule of totalitarian autocrats in the Arab world is no longer acceptable.
If King Abdullah wants to survive, he must cede some of his powers, allow free and democratic elections for parliament and government and stop suppressing his critics. If he fails to wake up, Jordan could soon be taken over either by Islamists or the Palestinian majority.