Jordan stands at a very delicate point. While the death of a demonstrator Friday was tragic, the unrest in the country remains at an early enough stage that further violence can be avoided, and real reform implemented.
Jordan's urgent need to restore calm on streets
On February 1, King Abdullah of Jordan removed Samir Rifai from the post of prime minister. It was in response to demonstrations by many Jordanians who blamed Mr Rifai for soaring prices, poverty, unemployment and government corruption that has afflicted the kingdom.
Replacing him with Marouf al Bakhit was seen as a step towards bringing about change to the country, or at least a more familiar face to the process of reform. But already some protesters are calling for Mr al Bakhit to step down too. The death of one demonstrator, and 130 others injured on Friday, has added to the tensions.
Mr al Bakhit’s first promise on taking office was instituting critical political reforms, a promise that has failed to persuade. How then can King Abdullah and the government in Amman convince protesters to give them time to prove that reforms are real?
Not by the prime minister accusing the opposition of being an Islamist front. Mr al Bakhit only worsened his position by blaming the Muslim Brotherhood’s “agenda to create chaos” for the violence. The March 24 movement leading the protests includes left-wing activists, independents and Islamists – they have emphasised their support for the king and the need to maintain order.
Regaining the trust of Jordan’s disenfranchised factions has suddenly become a far more difficult proposition. And there is no easy solution. In one popular movement after another, we have seen protesters’ demands grow stronger the longer they face violence in the streets. At what point does the offer of reform become unacceptable to those demanding change?
Jordan stands at a very delicate point. While Friday’s death was undoubtedly tragic, the unrest in the country remains at an early enough stage that further violence can be avoided, and real reform can not only be promised, but implemented. These challenges will grow more difficult with time. Even extraordinary concessions can fail to sway the popular mood if offered too late; we have also seen localised unrest spiral out of control.
The critical first step is that protests have to be dealt with in a restrained manner. In Jordan, protesters have demanded specific changes to the political system. The more violence that ensues, the more likely that militant groups will hijack the demonstrations.
The kingdom needs to find a way to restore calm. That will mean launching a clear and open process of reform and showing that it is being implemented.