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In biggest protest since Arab Spring, Jordan Islamists demand change

Islamists display a Jordanian flag as they demonstrate in Amman to demand political reforms.

AMMAN: Thousands of Jordanian Islamists marched Friday in the largest demonstration since Arab Spring-inspired protests erupted last year, calling on King Abdullah II to accelerate democratic reforms.

At least 15,000 protesters from across the country flocked to the main street leading to the Husseini Mosque in downtown Amman after Friday prayers and chanted: “Listen Abdullah, our demands are legitimate” and, “People want to reform the regime.”

Hundreds of young bearded men also chanted: “We are free men, not slaves” and, “Freedom ... Freedom,” while others carried placards or banners denouncing corruption and the pervasive role of the security apparatus in daily life.

The “Friday to Rescue the Nation” rally was called by the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition party, to push for broader representation and a more democratic parliament.

The protest went off peacefully after loyalists with links to the security forces called off a planned counter-rally at the same location, defusing tensions.

The demonstration included some of the tribal opposition that has been more vocal in its personal criticism of Abdullah’s rule than Islamists who seek broad political reforms.

Sheikh Hamam Said, head of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, said a move by the monarch to dissolve a rubber-stamp, tribal-dominated parliament Thursday to set the stage for elections expected early next year did not go far enough.

His party will not go back on a decision to boycott future elections under the current political system, he added.

“What we are demanding is real reforms and not illusory reforms and finding an election law that is different from this one. This one is rejected,” Hamam added.

“The reforms are cosmetic and will only lead to a docile parliament, like the previous successive legislatures we had,” he roared through a loudspeaker.

The Islamists say electoral laws passed last July are tailored to curb their influence by drawing constituency lines in favor of sparsely populated, pro-government tribal areas that have a majority of parliamentary seats.

Heavily populated cities, the Islamists’ traditional strongholds, are grossly under-represented, they say.

The electoral law keeps intact a system that marginalizes the representation of Jordanians of Palestinian origin, whom Islamists rely upon for their support, in favor of native Jordanians who maintain a tight grip on power and are the backbone of the powerful security forces and army.

A boycott by the only effective opposition, the Islamic Action Front political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, is threatening to damage the legitimacy of any future parliament.

The Brotherhood wants an older election law from 1989, which allowed Jordanians multiple ballots and saw the Brotherhood at the time win almost half of the seats.

In 1990, six Brotherhood lawmakers joined a Cabinet for the first time.

But the group’s popularity waned soon afterward as its lawmakers and Cabinet members failed to deliver on promises to create jobs and improve living conditions of the poor, focusing instead on banning alcohol aboard some flights of Jordan’s flag carrier and ending TV talk shows they considered too liberal.

Despite opposing many of the king’s policies, the Brotherhood has remained largely loyal to Abdullah’s dynasty, which claims ancestry to Islam’s Prophet Mohammad.

Jordan has had nearly two years of peaceful street protests by Islamists, tribal figures and leftists, inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings, but they have focused on reforming government and limiting Abdullah’s powers rather than ousting him.

Jordan’s political elite has watched with great concern as Islamist parties in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have gained ground, seeing their rise as a sign of the future empowerment for the Jordanians of Palestinian origin, a majority of the population, who are grossly unrepresented politically but whose business elites are the backbone of the economy.

Politicians say the monarch, who has ruled since 1999, has been forced to take only cautious steps toward democracy, constrained by the tribal power base which sees reform as a threat to its political and economic benefits.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 06, 2012, on page 1.

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