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Behind the Headlines: Jordanians Ponder a Future Without King Hussein at Helm

From countless photographs in the streets and shops of Amman, King Hussein of Jordan looks down upon his people with the same fatherly face.

But the robust, healthy images of the ruler of the Hashemite Kingdom are no consolation to worried Jordanians as they watch their king, who has ruled for 46 years, battle lymphatic cancer at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.

Some 90 percent of Jordanians have never known another leader, and they fear that several television appearances made by the king since his departure more than three months ago for the clinic were aimed at preparing them for the worst.

Many Middle East observers got their first look at the ailing monarch, bald and thin from chemotherapy, when he made a dramatic appearance at the summit last month in Maryland to help save the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The rest of the world had their first glimpse when Hussein participated in the Oct. 23 White House signing of the Wye agreement.

Hussein’s appearance sparked fresh speculation about his condition, the regime’s stability and prospects of a change in Jordan’s policy of pursuing a “warm” peace with Israel.

Jordanians have not yet lost hope, especially since the king has recovered from cancer before, in 1992.

“We pray to God that the king will return healthy” from his treatments at the clinic, says Mahmood Hassan, who owns a small clothing store in Amman.

“There is nobody like King Hussein, but Prince Hassan is also good, because he is a student of the king.”

Jordanian officials and analysts, many speaking anonymously about an extremely sensitive subject, are confident that if Hussein dies, the transfer of power to his younger brother, Crown Prince Hassan, will pass smoothly and with little impact on relations with Israel.

However, they say, although overall policies will remain intact, if the peace process with the Palestinians again becomes deadlocked, Hassan may be forced to use tougher rhetoric against Israel in public statements to show Jordanians that he is not ignoring their frustrations.

Replacing Hussein will not be easy. Despite his authoritarian tendencies, Hussein’s charisma and commitment to his people have earned him genuine respect and loyalty, while many other Arab leaders are merely feared.

His often emotional commitment to warm, neighborly relations with Israel — in spite of his public’s misgivings — has also earned the king genuine affection from Israelis.

“Nobody in Jordan has King Hussein’s charisma,” says Hani Hourani, director general of Al-Urdun Al-Jadid Research Center, an independent think tank in Amman.

“But the crown prince has been involved in decision-making for a long time. There is a theory that the prince doesn’t support peace the way King Hussein does, but I believe that this is a strategic decision made not just by the king.”

Hourani’s analysis is confirmed by a source close to the palace, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“The king’s policy is not a personal policy. It is a Hashemite policy, meaning a Jordanian policy,” says the source. “The crown prince will continue the same policies of the king.”

In the past, the crown prince has made tougher public statements on Israeli policy than Hussein.

However, in 1994, Hassan was the first Arab leader to meet Benjamin Netanyahu, who was then head of the opposition Likud Party.

Later, he met Ariel Sharon, who is despised in the Arab world for his role in the 1982 war in Lebanon, and who was one of only six legislators to abstain from the Knesset’s overwhelming vote in support of the historic Israeli- Jordanian peace accord in 1994.

Yet some political experts say Hassan, as a new leader, cannot ignore growing hostility toward the Israeli-Palestinian peace process among the Jordanian people, especially since some 60 percent of the country’s 4.6 million population are of Palestinian origin.

Meanwhile, Hassan is already taking a bigger role in Jordanian affairs of state, signaling that the process of succession is well underway.

Hussein remains involved from his hospital bed, but has given his brother full control of the government.

In September, on the king’s instructions, Hassan reshuffled the Cabinet in response to a severe water crisis during the summer and an ongoing economic crisis.

Hassan seized the opportunity to begin consolidating support for his future regime, especially among Palestinians.

Palace insiders say the new government includes more Palestinians in senior positions than ever before.

But solving the country’s problems will require more than just a Cabinet reshuffle.

In recent years, unemployment has soared to nearly 30 percent, according to unofficial estimates.

Riots in the southern town of Karak in 1996 over a rise in bread prices were swiftly crushed, but highlighted the potential for an explosion.

The economic crisis has fueled frustration with the Israeli-Jordanian peace accord, which many had hoped would bring economic benefits.

Some businessmen criticize the regime for neglecting Jordanian ties with Iraq for the sake of relations with Israel that have not borne fruit.

These factors have boosted support for Islamist groups opposed to the monarchy and peace with Israel.

Many Jordanians are disappointed at the king’s reversal — through an elections law and tough press law aimed at marginalizing Islamic opposition groups — of democratic reforms launched in 1989.

Jordanians do not expect Islamic groups to threaten the monarchy, but as frustration with the peace process grows, the crown prince will be inclined to try to build trust with them.

“I do believe in dialogue, I do believe in participation,” Hassan told CNN last week. “I do believe in the creation of a civil society based on a new political discourse that we can forge together.”

These comments, say experts, confirm impressions that the Oxford-educated prince is more committed to democratic reforms than his older brother.

He may need to pursue such reforms in order to bolster support for his leadership during the early days, especially since he appears to lack the natural charisma of his brother.

“He is more sensitive to demands of democracy, not just because it is democracy for the people but because it is a trend in the world,” says analyst Hourani. “He also has to give the people something when he comes into power to show that he is different.”

Dr. Ramzi Azar, who runs a private clinic in the Baqa’a refugee camp north of Amman, where 100,000 Palestinians are crammed into an area of less than 1 square mile, is not optimistic.

“People here do not think the crown prince will make it easier for them,” he says, noting that support for Islamic groups in the camp has steadily climbed for several years.

This is because the refugees’ hope for a better future is pinned on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which is not under Jordan’s control.

Many thought that, at least, the peace process would make it easier for them to travel from Jordan to visit relatives in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Azar says it has only become more difficult to get permits from Israel. Hopes for an independent Palestinian homeland are considered a wild fantasy, while the poor are getting poorer.

“People here were convinced that the peace process will improve their economic situation, but nothing has improved,” says Azar. “On the contrary, there are more people living in poverty than ever before.”

“And while they appreciate the king’s role,” he says, “they all believe that the main problem is not the Palestinians, the Arabs or the king, but Netanyahu and his colleagues.”

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