By Randa Habib / AFP
AMMAN: Jordan’s King Abdullah II, who celebrates his 50th birthday on Monday, begins the 14th year of his reign facing urgent popular calls to fight corruption and carry out genuine reforms.
It has not been easy for Abdullah since ascending the throne on February 7, 1999 after his father King Hussein died — due to the 9/11 attacks, the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and the turbulent Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
But amid the difficulties, Jordan has long enjoyed a reputation for stability and security, as well as a relative openness compared to other Arab countries.
But now the Arab Spring poses a major challenge for the king.
“For the first time, the king faces internal challenges, and the margin to maneuver is narrow,” Mohammad Masri, a researcher at the University of Jordan’s Centre for Strategic Studies, told AFP.
With openness and democracy becoming regional catchphrases, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, in its annual freedom of the press ranking, knocked Jordan down eight points to the 128th place.
And much attention was paid to an 18-year-old political activist sentenced by a military court to two years in prison for “undermining the king’s dignity”, after he set alight a picture of the monarch.
“Things have changed. Tunisia and Egypt are now ahead of Jordan on the path to democracy,” said Masri.
“For Jordanians, priority should be given to firm action against corruption in addition to introducing serious political reform,” he said.
Inspired by social movements elsewhere, Jordanians demand trials for officials suspected of embezzling billions of dollars under a controversial socio-economic transformation program.
“The king must show a real will to fight corruption, regardless of his friendship and kinship ties. No one should be given immunity,” said Ali Habashneh, who heads a group of military retirees.
Habashneh last week formed the Jordanian National Congress political party, which if approved by the government, would become the first real fruit of the country’s popular movement.
sury and encourage all members of the royal family to do the same to calm things down.”
State spending is a key concern. Since 1999, public debt grew from $7 billion to $18 billion now — more than 65 percent of gross domestic product.
Abdullah, with an eye towards satisfying Jordanians and replenishing public coffers, has urged swift action against corruption.
Facing public pressure for greater transparency, the palace in December revealed that 4,827 dunums (each equivalent to 1,000 square meters) of state land were “registered to the king’s name between 2000 and 2003,” while adding that “none of them has been sold.”
Former Amman mayor Omar Maani is currently on trial after he was arrested last month on corruption charges. Also, former intelligence Chief Mohammed Dahabi has been barred from leaving the country and had his assets frozen by order of the general prosecutor.
But the powerful opposition Islamists remain skeptical that the moves will amount to much.
“Until now, there is no serious policy to tackle the crisis. People are still protesting and expressing their dissatisfaction, while the new phenomenon of self-immolation has emerged in the country,” said Zaki Bani Rsheid, head of the political bureau of the Islamic Action Front.
Two Jordanians have died after setting themselves on fire over economic problems.
“Decision-makers should heed all these alarming issues. The only exit is through constitutional reforms and early and fair democratic elections under a new law,” said Rsheid, whose party is the political arm of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood.
The Islamists, youth groups and other parties have been protesting since January last year, demanding political and economic change and an end to corruption.
“The king has a historic opportunity to present a model of democracy through a peaceful process that will allow all the forces of the country to feel that they are winning,” Masri said.
“It is not about fixes here and there. It is about establishing a true democracy, giving a new legitimacy to the regime and ensure stability and security of the country,” he said.