Can Jordan's King Stop the Arab Spring From Sweeping His Nation?

No one is calling for Abdullah's ouster yet, but Jordanians are fed up with rampant corruption and the king's lip service to democracy.

Next Monday, King Abdullah of Jordan will celebrate his 50th birthday, and a few weeks later he will mark 13 years on the throne. Time flies when you're having fun.

Abdullah no longer needs the little beard that adorned his cheeks in the first years of his reign, when he still looked too young to rule. His hair has started to go gray, the Arabic he speaks, which used to sound like he was grinding gravel, has become much more sophisticated, much like his recognition that the Hashemite dynasty might not last forever.

Jordanian protesters - AFP - 01022012

The storm of revolutions in the Arab world has not hit the kingdom hard. A few demonstrations and some relatively limp public criticism, but no one as yet is calling in the streets to oust the king or to change the monarchy. Beneath the surface, however, are increasing signs that the king can no longer make due with only hanging on, as he has done until now. He will have to start managing the country's affairs, and with determination.

Last week Abdullah visited Washington and had a frustrating meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama. Speaking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Abdullah told The Washington Post, "We can't expect for the Americans to wade in, full-weight, unless we have enough of a package where the outcome is somewhat predictable."

Diplomatic officials say the king understood from Obama that the White House does not plan to intervene in the diplomatic process in the near future and that the initiative to host the Israeli-Palestinian meeting is not, as Obama sees it, more than blowing on embers.

Abdullah's attempt to persuade the president to initiate action against Syria did not succeed either. Obama made it explicitly clear that the United States will not intervene in the tumult without international backing, and this backing will not be obtained without a request from the Arab League.

Abdullah, who was the first Arab leader to call upon Syrian President Bashar Assad to resign (though he quickly backtracked ), is also the only Arab leader to have requested an exemption from the Arab sanctions on Syria because of the grave economic damage they would cause his country.

Trade between Syria and Jordan amounts to about $550 million annually - a significant sum for Jordan. Last week it obtained a loan of $250 million from the World Bank in order to overcome the difficulties that have piled up on its doorstep in the wake of instability with its neighbors. These difficulties are added to a huge capital drain, estimated at about $1 billion, into the pockets of cronies and top politicians who are now being accused of corruption.

A war on corruption, free and fair elections and an economic reform are now the issues filling opposition websites and blogs in Jordan. Anyone who remembers how Egyptian protesters began operating six or seven years ago cannot help but make comparisons. A cartoon published on an opposition site shows a young Jordanian holding a can of kerosene, about to set himself on fire.

"Brother Citizen, don't think about it," reads the caption. "Instead you can enjoy the warmth and the fragrance of corruption."

But the Internet is not the only forum for criticism. Former MP Khalil Atiyah (who in 2008 burned an Israeli flag in the Jordanian Parliament building ), has published an open letter to the king saying something has to give. "We are on the way to the breaking point and the dead end for finding solutions or inventing cures," he wrote.

On Friday, a demonstration of about 1,500 people led by the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood set out from the Al Husseini Mosque in Amman, with the demand to "open the corruption files and investigate them."

"We have a million questions. Where has all that money gone?" shouted the demonstrators. They are not satisfied with the investigation being handed over to the state's anti-corruption department - in their view this is just another way to bury the problem. They are demanding a criminal probe.

The king, too, wants to fight corruption and he too wants economic reforms. Indeed, throughout his reign he has been talking about reform of one sort or another: economic, political, educational - but he has succeeded in getting very little done. The cumbersome bureaucracy, the need to satisfy the tribal chiefs and other associates and above all a chronic shortage of money have left behind a lot of working papers and attention-getting statements but very little change.

Now the king is proposing another old nostrum: parliamentary elections at the end of the year, which this time will be free and clean, with a new elections law that will promote them and grant suitable representation to all parts of society.

But the Jordanians are already familiar with this invention and they no longer trust it.

Some people are comparing an opposition movement coming from the youth of the city of Karak to the April 6 movement in Egypt. On Thursday, the movement published a statement demanding the king conduct a dialogue with all the movements and political parties in order to reach agreement on the nature of the elections law and the needed reforms.

This is a movement that supports the king and opposes any change in his status, but at the same time it wants a "representative Jordan with clean hands," in the words of the movement's spokeswoman.

Jordanians of all stripes are fed up with the absence of an economic horizon and the pretense of democracy, and they are also fed up with the fact that they are having to host about 700,000 Iraqi refugees who are raising the prices of housing. The king now has a real problem and he cannot solve it with another parliament and another subsidy.