Not surprisingly, Abdullah and many royal court officials
evince a deep suspicion of Islamists, whose strength is frequently used to
explain the delay in executing promised reforms. In one recent interview with
Christiane Amanpour, the king said, "If we can show
democracy that leads to a two-, three-, four-party system - left, right, and
center - in a couple of years' time, then the Muslim Brotherhood will no longer
be something to contend with."
In his public speeches, the king
speaks of democracy much more than nearly all other Arab leaders. Yet, he is
also careful to warn of the dangers of unfettered freedom - often in the same
breath. In a major June 12 speech,
Abdullah underlined the "difference between the required democratic
transformations and achievable ones on the one hand, and the risks of chaos and
fitna (sedition) on the other." The implications were clear: democracy,
without loyalty and vigilance, could easily turn into something dangerous.
It was not an isolated comment. In
his October 24 letter
of designation to the new prime minister, Awn al-Khasawneh, King
Abdullah emphasized the importance of media liberalization but cautioned that
"the media should shun demagoguery and incitement, refrain from undermining the
country's image and from character assassination." He went on, "When democratic
environment, press freedom, and freedom of speech are exploited to serve
personal agendas and purposes, or to undermine the reform process or national
unity, then this is a matter to be referred to the judiciary."
Since the Arab spring began, King
Abdullah, to his credit, has acknowledged the demands of protesters and
promised significant reforms, including granting Jordanians the right to elect
a prime minister and a government. Yet, in a speech to parliament on October
26, he also said it wouldn't happen anytime soon: "As for governments formed by
political parties, this issue rests in the hands of the citizens and voters,
and it is very much conditional to the ability of political parties to freely
It is unclear how long that might
take. Developing two or three broad-based political parties has long been the
stated desire of Jordanian officials. If one goes back to newspaper archives in
the mid-1990s, it is remarkable how similar some of the debates were. Back
then, political parties - with the exception of the Islamic Action Front - were
weak and ineffectual. Today, they are still weak and ineffectual.
This brings us to a larger, more troubling question: does
gradual reform even work? One hopes it does. The alternative, after all, can be
destabilizing and even violent. And, sometimes, the alternative - revolution -
doesn't even work on its own terms. In Egypt, for example, the "revolution"
has, so far, been unable to dislodge entrenched power structures. But if
revolution is uncertain and messy, at least it brings about substantive change.
The track record of top-down "gradual reform," meanwhile, has an almost flawless
record of failure in the Arab world. Reform does not necessarily lead to
democracy. But perhaps that's the point.