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Jordan: intimations of mortality.

Despite rumours, King Hussein of Jordan does not appear to be terminally ill. But the simple fact that he has undergone an operation for cancer has brought the country face to face with the discomforting realisation that he cannot be expected to last for ever. Mariam Shahin writes from Amman that this is particularly unsettling at a time when the influence of the Islamic fundamentalists is on the rise.

NEVER IN THE COURSE of their history have Jordanians been as overwhelmed as in the last year and a half. After more than four decades of being at war with Israel, peace now seems inevitable between the Hashemite kingdom and Israel.

After enjoying the continuity of King Hussein's 40-year rule Jordanians have had to face the fact that their leader, now 57, is indeed mortal and will eventually pass on the reins of Hashemite rule to another member of his family. The growing pains of democracy have proved to be more difficult than many Jordanians expected when the welcomed change after price riots in April of 1989 altered Jordan' s politics forever.

An absolute leader for more than four decades, King Hussein has probably ruled with a gentler hand than most leaders in the region. With a firm yet tender tone he told his constituents in no uncertain terms that Jordan was going ahead with the peace process with Israel.

In a televised address to the nation in November, King Hussein left no room for debate with the Islamists, pan- Arab activists and Jordan's Palestinians who oppose the framework of the talks. "We have declared that we are joining the battle for peace on the basis of an independent Jordanian position," he said, stressing that Jordan had needs that were separate from those of Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians.

Since announcing that he was successfully treated for cancer in September, Jordanians have become more aware of the mortality of their king. It is clear that the future of Jordan will depend in part on the king's own durability and the steadiness with which he hands over the monarchy to his younger brother, Crown Prince Hassan bin Talal.

At 45, the Oxford-educated crown prince is seen as the intellectual of the royal family. Political observers believe that Prince Hassan will have to earn more points with the Jordanian armed forces and the security police whose sometimes excessive powers he is said to have scorned in the past.

King Hussein's frequent public appearances have reassured popular opinion about the state of his health. He has been busy with a series of political developments that have kept Jordan in the headlines. In September, two Islamist deputies were charged with treason and attempting to overthrow the monarchy. They were tried and jailed for 20 years.

Two days after the sentencing they were pardoned in the first general amnesty the king has granted in a decade. At least one of the two deputies, Laith Shbeilat, is widely believed to be the victim of a conspiracy by members of past governments which he alleged were corrupt and responsible for Jordan's national debt of $7b.

Having been a leading spokesman for rooting out the pre-democracy political establishment (the monarchy excluded) which enjoyed favours in the last 20 years, his indictment and subsequent royal pardon have made many democracy watchers suspicious. Confused, persistent in his claim that he was innocent of all charges laid against him and uncertain about the future of democracy in the kingdom, the lower house deputy is said to be considering dropping out of politics all together.

"The king's pardon, while welcome, made it look as if Shbeilat was guilty and the king forgave him. This is a defeat for Shbeilat because he says he was not guilty to begin with," said one of his lawyers after the pardon. While the Shbeilat trial was undoubtedly the most publicised court case in Jordan's history, it was discreetly ignored by newspapers and politicians alike only days after the pardon took effect.

King Hussein again became the centre of attention when he lashed out at Gulf rulers for their attitude towards the kingdom. During a recent address to graduates of one of Jordan's military academies, the king produced an extraordinary outburst against the Gulf leaders.

"After they flooded the nation with their oil and were elated when their thrones were given back to them by foreigners who slaughtered their brethren," he declared, "they were led by arrogance to crime and to believe that they are the be-all and end-all."

Those Jordanians with business interests in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf were aghast. While no follow-up speeches or public statements were issued, it is widely believed that the king was fed up with his brother rulers in the Gulf. Persistent Saudi demands for an apology for not having joined the coalition forces against Iraq and continuing insults from the Kuwait leadership seem to have led King Hussein to lose his temper. "The king will never apologise for having refused to go to war against Iraq," said a senior palace official.

While emphasising his dislike of "absolutism and totalitarians", the king used a new tone when addressing Iraqis in the same address. Trumpeting pan-Arabism, he spoke of changes in Iraq "from within." While he had previously called for democratic changes in Iraq and all but asked President Saddam Hussein to resign, he now called for "reconciliation and democracy." While many saw this as pertaining mostly to inter-Arab relations and the Iraqis, the call was meant for internal consumption as well, say sources close to the palace.

The majority of union, professional association, municipal and student elections have swept Islamists and members of the Muslim Brotherhood into power during the last two years. Both Iran and the Gulf states are suspected or known to be financial backers of Islamic groups in the Hashemite kingdom. Such foreign intervention is not welcomed by the king and renegades have been warned they would not be tolerated for long.

Known for his relatively lenient reactions to the internal opponents of his rule, the king called on Jordanians to help rehabilitate those who had deviated from the nation's path to democracy and pluralism. "I wish to affirm our determination to stand up to those elements that seek to impair our country's image and take us back to the past ... and if they overstep the limits at which they ought to draw a line, they will be faced with all that is necessary to protect democracy and ensure that they are stopped in their tracks and redirected to the proper path."

But the king looked on in silence as 73% of the lower house of parliament elected the Muslim Brotherhood's Abdul Latif Arabyat for a third term as Speaker of the house. While Arabyat is a pro-establishment Brotherhood member, his successful bid for re-election has served the brethren as they prepare for an "all-out" campaign for next summer's legislative elections.

The Brotherhood now has 23 of the 80 seats in the lower house. At least 10 other deputies are independent Islamists. The Brotherhood's political organisation, the Islamic Action party, will be one of many vying for votes next summer. Paving the way for the first legislative elections in which political parties will field candidates in over three decades, the Ministry of Interior began announcing the approval of party registrations in early December.

The first party to receive an official sanction was the Jordanian National Alliance, a conglomeration of Bedouin tribes from southern and central Jordan. One Baath Party and the Jordanian Communist Party had their applications rejected and are awaiting the outcome of an appeal to the nation's highest court.

"Democracy is not quite in place yet, it would seem," is the guarded observation of Yacoub Zayyadin, the head of the Jordanian Communist party.


GDP: JD2.8bn; $4.1bn GDP per capita: $1,099 Population: 3.7m GDP growth: 1992 5%; 1993 4.0% Inflation: 1992 7.0%; 1993 8.0%

* Jordan has to face the unaccustomed prospect of King Hussein's eventual demise. He is only 57, but cancer scares have raised the question of his succession and the future shape of the Jordanian (and possibly Palestinian?) entity. With the growing influence of the Islamic fundamentalists, there is plenty of room for debate.

* Jordan's ambiguous but misunderstood stance during the Kuwait crisis of 1990 will still cause problems in the coming year. The United States appears to be relenting in its stand-offish approach, but relations between Amman and the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, are likely to remain problematic.

* The economy is set to enjoy something of a mini-boom. Jordan is benefiting in many ways from the return of expatriates from Kuwait who have given a boost to the construction sector. The returnees are well-educated, enterprising and healthy. With any luck, their re-entry into the domestic economy will be a stimulus.
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Title Annotation:Outlook 1993; includes related article
Author:Shahin, Mariam
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Previous Article:Lebanon: on the edge of the abyss.
Next Article:Egypt: a sense of foreboding.

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