x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Jordan apology to Hamas baffles many

Mending relations with Hamas has raised eyebrows among King Abdullah II's loyalists and his detractors, and not only because Washington considers the Palestinian group a terrorist organisation.

Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood protesters call for reforms in June. Analysts say Amman's gestures towards Hamas are a bid to quell Islamist unrest within its own borders.
Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood protesters call for reforms in June. Analysts say Amman's gestures towards Hamas are a bid to quell Islamist unrest within its own borders.

AMMAN // A surprise government apology to Hamas has stirred suspicion in this kingdom, which is both a leading benefactor of Palestinians and a close ally of Washington.

The mea culpa was offered by Jordan's prime minister, Awn Khasawneh, for the 1999 decision to close the Islamist group's offices and expel its members - action widely believed to have been taken under pressure from the US.

Calling it a "constitutional and political mistake", his regret was extended soon after Jordan's King Abdullah II appointed him to the premiership in October. Further, the Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal, reportedly is arriving in Jordan today for talks.

Mending relations with Hamas has raised eyebrows among the king's loyalists and his detractors, and not only because Washington considers the Palestinian group a terrorist organisation.

Increasingly, it is perceived as an attempt to outflank the king's domestic critics and bolster his standing in the Arab world.

"He wants more political support to improve his image internationally, by showing that he managed to engage Islamists," said Jamal Al Tahat, a former military adviser who is part of a group of Jordanians advocating a transition to constitutional monarchy.

"Then he can use this to crack down on the protest movement." At issue is what he and other critics call the king's refusal to heed demands by sporadic, yet seemingly widening, protests seeking to curb the king's power.

Beginning this year with calls to end official corruption, the protests have escalated into angry demonstrations - increasingly by members of the monarchy's tribal support base.

By reaching out to Hamas, however, suspicion has mounted that the king is trying to put off reforms by cutting a deal with the group's influential brethren in Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Their support could prove useful for restraining dissent, said Fuad Hussein, an independent journalist who writes on Jordan's Islamist movements.

"They can control the flow of the protests," he said of the Brotherhood's popular following in Jordan. "They can muster great support."

That speculation includes talk of back-room deals to move Hamas' offices out of Syria, where the group has disappointed the government of Bashar Al Assad for not backing its suppression of protests.

Rumours abound that Hamas has been looking for another country to base itself, possibly in Egypt, Qatar and, some now speculate, Jordan.

"Jordanian Moslem brotherhood to sacrifice their support to protest movement in return for Hamas getting Jordanian office," Daoud Kuttab, a political analyst and prominent writer in Amman, said in a November 25 tweet. Jordanian officials, however, have publicly denied any interest in harbouring the group.

Such a move could undermine Jordan's peace treaty with Israel, damaging ties with Washington.

King Abdullah has also tried to assuage Hamas's main rival, visiting the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, last month at his Ramallah headquarters.

Yet the idea of Hamas leaders setting foot on Jordanian soil has unsettled loyalists.

The Muslim Brotherhood denies playing a role in the thawing of ties with Hamas. But its political affairs department head, Zaki Ershead, said the group supports a Hamas move to Jordan.

It would even be prepared to throw its weight behind the king should such a deal, coupled with reforms, take place.

"Good ties with Hamas means good ties with Islamic movements all around the world, and the government is aware of this."

The growing prominence of political Islam emerging from the Arab Spring has added to the pressure of those demanding King Abdullah relinquish some power.

Islamists have won elections in Tunisia and Morocco and Egypt.

Meanwhile, Syria is on the brink of collapse. The Israel-Palestinian peace process appears lifeless.

The US is preparing to withdraw its forces from Iraq, possibly leaving an Iranian-manipulated Baghdad at Jordan's doorstep. "I am not an optimist at all," said Labib Kamhawi, an independent political analyst based in Jordan. "If Assad leaves, Jordan and other countries will be next in line," he said, referring to Syria's Mr Al Assad.

Mr Kamhawi sees Jordan's olive branch to Hamas as part of a coalition of Arab countries, led by Qatar and its crown prince, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, trying to buffer Iranian influence in the region.

This means crippling Tehran's foremost regional allies, Damascus and Hizbollah, and severing its ties with Hamas.

"If Syria is neutralised, Iran would have no arm to use to interfere in the region," he said. But warmer ties with Hamas and Jordan's Islamist groups may not be enough to placate mounting anger at stalled reforms and festering discontent over allegations of rampant official corruption.

That would require meaningful political concessions from the king, said Amer Al Sabaileh, a blogger and professor at Jordan University's department of European languages.

"He needs to reconcile with the people," he said. "He needs to reach to his roots, to know his power within."

hnaylor@thenational.ae

smaayeh@thenational.ae