Note: Contributing Writer David Dietz is based in Cairo and doing freelance reporting. For more of his opinions and coverage of Middle East politics, see his blog, TheMidEaster.com, where this story originally appeared.
Last week’s news of protests in Jordan adds another country to an ever-growing list of Arab states hit by violent clashes.
As the demonstrations spread, so too does the divide among observers watching the chaos unfold in the Middle East. In one corner there are those who support the protestors and their calls for more political freedoms and improved living conditions. Opposing them is the growing number of people who question the motives of the demonstrators and are increasingly afraid that the wave of revolution will not subside.
Tahrir Square in Cairo is a microcosm for such ideological split. Protestors continue to voice their demands in the Square, while others are beginning to express their aversion to their continued presence. As I wrote a little more than a week ago, some here in Cairo see the demonstrations as a cry for attention and the protesters’ desire for five minutes of fame. One Egyptian friend defended the protesters “who are risking contempt and detention from the military which is eager to kick them out.” He went on to say, “There is a lot of tough work to be done and a lot of people aren’t willing to stay and see it happen.”
At the same time, shopkeepers in the area of Tahrir Square and the unusually quiet downtown asserted that the demands had been met and that their shops were suffering because of the continued demonstrations. As one owner of a small tourist shop lamented, “Tourists come maybe to see the square and take pictures, but they are scared to stay. They don’t walk around anymore. It is bad for my shop. The shabab (people) got what they want. Khallas (enough). Mubarak is gone. Why are they still angry?”
The debate is not just confined to Egypt and is increasingly becoming a hot topic throughout the region. Few have argued that President Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, and Colonel Gaddafi shouldn’t have gone (in Gaddafi’s case still go). Slowly though, the encouragement for revolution is starting to change. If protests in Bahrain have raised eyebrows, then the unrest in Amman is the battleground where many people may draw the line.
King Abdullah is widely popular in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and respected among international circles for leading a country with few resources through a period of economic growth and development. Surrounded by Iraq, Syria, and Israel, Jordan has managed to remain an oasis of calm, attracting increasing foreign investment in the mostly desert country. In fact, in a recently released study, Mercer Human Resource Consulting found Amman to be the 4th most expensive Middle Eastern city for expatriates to live in after Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Beirut, due to a burgeoning upper-middle class and increased influx of wealth. While this is certainly a main reason for the increased frustrations among the middle class and poor, it shows that the government has been successful in building Amman as a destination for foreign investment and international business.
Furthermore, the Jordanian government is making strides to liberalize politically as well. A 2009 report released by an EU Commission found that “the Kingdom witnessed significant progress in the area of governance and transparency last year…” The commission went on to cite the launch of the Ombudsman Bureau and recently adopted a government code of conduct, which is said to be an attempt to strengthen and streamline the government’s sometimes coarse relationship with the local media. The efforts have paid off. Patrick Renault, the EU’s ambassador to Jordan, commended the Kingdom, declaring it “on the right track politically and economically.”
Still, many Jordanians face daily hardships. According to the latest survey of the Kingdom, poverty in Jordan (57 JD (80 USD) per person per month) was up to 13.3 percent of the population (non-governmental estimates are much higher especially for the youth populations). Media freedom is also restricted and corruption has increased of late.
Nevertheless, King Abdullah is responding to the people and by most accounts is a fair and progressive leader. Even before the revolution in Egypt, King Abdullah sacked his cabinet, replaced his prime minister, and demanded that food commodities and fuel prices be lowered.
Jordan has largely prospered under Abdullah’s leadership. Amman has made a name for itself as a leading Arab city and the Red Sea port city of Aqaba has experienced a tourism boom. Most importantly, King Abdullah has helped keep the peace with Israel, as well as with the Palestinians, Iraqis, and within his own country. Therefore, while many agree further reforms and lifting of media restrictions are needed, people worry about greater demands.
So far, protesters have refrained from calling for the removal of King Abdullah, but last week’s troubling news that two demonstrators were killed have many fearful that protesters will see blood. There is concern that protesters emboldened by the successes in Tunisia and Egypt will push for Abdullah’s ouster, even if it’s not in their best interest. As one Jordanian put it, “They have legitimate demands. Reforms are needed sure. But they can’t go too far. If they ask for too much and become more aggressive people will not support them.”
Revolution is sweeping the region. If protesters in Jordan turn violent they may lose the public’s admiration. If that is the case, pro-democracy reform across the Arab world may experience a backlash of public opposition. As my friend summed it up, “We all want the bad people to go, but King Abdullah is not a bad person. Everyone knows this. People won’t support revolution here. Reform yes, revolution no way.”
It remains to be seen what will transpire, but judging by Obama’s recent call to reassure King Abdullah amidst the rising unrest, Jordanian’s aren’t the only ones who favor the King.
Photo Credit: David Dietz