The Curious Advice of Jordan's King Abdullah
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 all that were not enough, the spectacle of descent into sectarian strife, international sanctions, and now suspension from the Arab League surely mean that somebody in the Damascus regime could benefit from a more honest and introspective evaluation of the real causes for Syria's breakdown.
But according to the neighboring Sandhurst-trained ruler of Jordan, the path to survival seems to lie not in defense, 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 Syria's political life.
If these were the words of a rational Arab citizen 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 sound bite, but they'll be 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. Nor is he now feeling that it's vital to speak out when other Arab neighbors are silent and withdrawn. Israel's and America's best friend in the Arab world has heretofore failed miserably to utter anything substantive about the earlier uprisings in the region.
So what's behind the turnaround?
For an absolute monarch, ruling is sacrosanct. Jordan is in a part of the word where time is measured by the amount of blood spilled, and Abdullah's 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 off an Arab street rising at home.
The remarks on Assad reflect nervousness in the king's court that the continued uprisings will embolden anti-government protests in Jordan as well. His comments were all about appearing to be on the side of the revolting masses, to convey the impression that he is a champion of peaceful transitions of power and reformist agendas.
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 Syria made -- the Jordanian ruler should be made aware that opportunistic words will do nothing to deflect opposition at home. And with good reason.
Jordan's troubles began predominantly with 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 the demonstrators, Abdullah realized that he needed to strike boldly and go for the jugular. Jordan's 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 king's police. He then tried to alleviate the hardship by reducing fuel and utility prices, reforming freedom of information laws, and meeting with senior opposition figures to give the appearance that he was hearing them out.
But the demonstrations persisted, albeit somewhat sporadically. Demands for stripping the king's 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 king's motorcade being attacked trickled in but were denied.
The king's motorcade, we were told, was met only with throngs of enthusiastic supporters.
Over the summer months, violence and police brutality took another twist with the beatings of journalists and protesters alike. However, in keeping in line with presenting a democratic face for his regime -- granted, a rare occurrence in the Arab world -- the Jordanian 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 that there is silent panic in Jordan's 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 in his own country.
But Abullah is well aware that if the protests take a nasty turn and the trigger-fingers of his military snipers are brought into the fray, nothing, in the end, can protect a tyrant from a horrid death.
Mohammad I. Aslam is an editor at the Montreal Review and a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the Department of Middle-East & Mediterranean Studies, King's College, London.