Immediately after the general election four months ago, Jordan's King Abdullah II reappointed Samir Rifai as prime minister. Last week he replaced him with Marouf al-Bakhit. The move was not intended as a judgment of Rifai's performance, but rather as a way to insure and heighten the defenses of the Hashemite regime.
Bakhit's claim to fame is not his ambassadorial stint in Tel Aviv, but his reputation as an experienced general. The Hashemite dynasty is the longest surviving dynasty in the Middle East. It has faced immense challenges since the Hashemite Kingdom became an independent entity, and withstood them with great resolve and admirable political maneuvering. A general is needed much more in the face of a gathering storm than is the scion of a family that has produced more prime ministers than any other in the Arab world.
The toughest challenge to Jordan's stability is its demography. Israel's 1948 War of Independence resulted in 725,000 Palestinian refugees and made the Hashemite Bedouin population a minority. After the 1967 Six-Day War, nearly 300,000 additional refugees crossed from the western to the eastern bank of the Jordan River. But with the exception of 1970, when Jordan resorted to military force to eliminate the PLO state-within-a-state, King Hussein and his son Abdullah have maintained a mostly stable and peaceful state. Sporadic demonstrations and tensions have been more a result of economic pressures than expressions of political unrest.
The political turmoil in the region that began in Iran in June 2009 and spread to Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen is obviously continuing to spread; there have already been demonstrations in the streets of Amman.
But Jordan is different from Egypt. While there is no denying the far-reaching domestic and regional ramifications of the change, whether the current political elite or the Muslim Brotherhood rules the country in coalition with the army, Egypt will remain Egypt. A successful attempt to remove the current regime in Jordan is of a totally different magnitude. Two thirds of the population is of Palestinian origin, with Jordanian citizenship and the right to vote for and to be elected to both chambers of Parliament. But Palestinians account for fewer than 20% of members of Parliament, due to a less than fully democratic electoral system that has nonetheless helped to maintain a sense of democracy. Through constitutional means there is a tacit understanding between the government and various opposition groups regarding the limits of the freedom of speech and of political expression that preserves the equilibrium.
The winds of change sweeping the region threaten to shatter the modus vivendi among Bedouin, religious and Palestinian components of Jordanian society. But it should be stressed that the regime in Amman has a much lower threshold of tolerance than its Cairo counterpart. Its 100,000-strong army is all-Hashemite - that is, Bedouin - and is absolutely loyal to the king. King Abdullah himself also has military experience. The regime would not hesitate, in the event, to call its 1,250 tanks and 2,300 armored personnel carriers into action to nip any uprising in the bud, regardless of the international repercussions. Every opposition party or force in the country is well aware of that resolve.
When Bedouin in cities in the south, such as Ma'an, Dhiban or Karak, suffering from unemployment and poverty, have rioted over the past several years, the government has used harsh military force against them. It will not hesitate to use the same measures against citizens of Palestinian origin. Bakhit's appointment as prime minister was intended to send this clear message to any potential demonstrator.
Washington can amuse itself with demands for full democracy in Egypt. The stakes of embracing a similar position for Jordan, if the situation arises, are much higher. A regime change in Jordan could bring about a state change, with a threat of neighbors being sucked in. With the situation compounded by the unsolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a wobbling Iraq and the neighboring Syrian-Iranian coalition, the United States should refrain from sending messages of encouragement to the Jordanian opposition, peaceful as it may be. Some of Jordan's neighbors might be interested in increasing instability there, igniting a chain reaction that could throw the whole region into an armed conflict. Iran, emboldened by its recent success in Lebanon and the collapse of the regime of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak - an outspoken critic of Iran - is an obvious candidate, in cooperation with Syria, to meddle in Jordan. And certain Palestinian factions, such as Hamas, might join in, hoping to use the regional turbulence to increase their power in Jordan.
Certain political groups in Israel may revive the "Jordan is Palestine" dream. This is a dangerous proposition. Israel has a clear interest in the territorial integrity of Jordan and the maintenance of its current political system. Any alternative is counterproductive to Israel's long-term interests.
Oded Eran is director of the Institute for National Security Studies and a former ambassador to Jordan.
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