King Abdullah II was never his father’s favorite.
In a letter from his deathbed, the king’s father, King Hussein, signaled a preference for Hamzah, the eldest son of the fourth and final queen, who the king wrote had been “envied since childhood because he was close to me.” And though Hamzah was still in school, the king insisted that he be named crown prince in line to succeed Abdullah, Hamzah’s eldest half brother — though the new king later rescinded that title.
Now, 13 years after King Hussein’s death and King Abdullah’s ascension, the fantasy of a handover to Hamzah, 32, has captured the imagination of a resurgent protest movement that poses the biggest threat in decades to the stability of Jordan, a pivotal American ally. This dream of a transition to a new king within the same dynasty, critics say, is an apt reflection of the ambiguous character of the protests, animated by the democratic spirit of the Arab Spring uprisings but also by nostalgia.
“There is a popular outcry for Hamzah,” said an organizer in the two-year-old secular opposition network Hirak, which began raising demands for political reform and local development after the start of the Arab Spring revolts. (Its name comes from the Arabic word for movement.)
Speaking on the condition of anonymity — promoting Prince Hamzah has landed at least one journalist in jail, and on Sunday 89 people were arrested and charged with fomenting violent protests — the organizer said Hirak activists were planning to hold up pictures of Hamzah and the other princes at protests to suggest intrafamily change.
The political tremors are disconcerting for American policy makers because of the role Jordan has played as a dependable ally and a stabilizing buffer zone in a volatile region. Jordan is the only Arab country besides Egypt to sign a peace treaty with Israel, and, in contrast to Egypt, the Islamist party in Jordan that has made up the principal political opposition has staunchly opposed the pact. Also, Jordan sits between Iraq and Syria, and it has absorbed vast numbers of refugees, including hundreds of thousands fleeing the Syrian strife.
Supporters of King Abdullah argue that the attention paid to Prince Hamzah is evidence that, in contrast to the other Arab Spring movements, the protests here are essentially conservative. The wave of demonstrations that broke out last week was set off not by any expressed yearning for freedom, they say, but by the end of fuel subsidies that threatened to bankrupt the country. His loyalists also say that at its base the protest movement is driven by opposition to King Abdullah’s program of economic liberalization and privatization, a sharp break with King Hussein.
Those initiatives have been a threat to members of the old clans based on the East Bank of the Jordan River who were King Hussein’s core supporters, who made up the backbone of his security services and who benefited the most from public-sector jobs and patronage. The same clans and towns are now the wellspring of Hirak.
The opposition movement has directed special hatred toward King Abdullah’s glamorous Palestinian wife, Queen Rania, whose influence the organizers have cited as one of their top complaints. Tensions between East Bank natives and Palestinian immigrants, who make up about half of Jordan’s population, are the major fissure in Jordanian politics. And while East Bank natives have dominated the public sector, Palestinians have flourished in the private sector and stand to gain from liberalization.
The king views Hirak as advocating “the status quo,” one diplomat who has talked to him said.
But many of the demonstrators who turned out for four days of protests in Amman and other cities last week said that economic grievances were beginning to translate into new demands for democratic political change, toward the adoption of a constitutional monarchy like Britain’s.
Although the fuel price increases were the catalyst, the demonstrations included the first explicit calls for the king’s ouster, as protesters took up the signature Arab Spring chant about “the fall of the regime,” even though that can be a capital offense here. Indeed, a wide range of Jordanians, not just demonstrators, said the kingdom’s censorship and political repression undercut the king’s pledges that, after years of rigged elections and false promises, he was about to usher in democratic change.
The demonstrations also drew a broad cross-section of young people and professionals, just as the first riots of the Arab Spring did in Tunisia and Egypt almost two years ago.
“When the people choose their government, they will accept the government’s decisions — even a price hike — because then it is a decision of the people, too,” said Obada al-Ali, 22, a medical student at a rally in Irbid, Jordan’s second-largest city. “It is not just a matter of money. It is about the will of the people.”
King Abdullah is not the only heir to political power in the Arab world whose embrace of privatization and economic liberalization shook up an old elite and drew allegations of corruption. Much the same happened in Egypt, with Gamal Mubarak, a son of former President Hosni Mubarak; in Libya, with Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, a son of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi; and in Syria, with President Bashar al-Assad, a son of Hafez al-Assad, a former president.
Demonstrators in Amman and other places around Jordan blamed official corruption for the country’s poverty, and they pinned the corruption on a lack of accountability for King Abdullah. At rallies, protesters held hands to perform what they called “the corruption dance,” chanting that King Abdullah was Ali Baba, the legendary thief.
“The corruption is woven into the fabric, and everything is connected to it, even the unemployment,” said Gassem Gharaibeh, 40, a Hirak activist in Irbid.
But the protesters also had more specific complaints about King Abdullah’s authenticity. Educated abroad while his father groomed his brother for the throne, King Abdullah is sometimes derided for being more fluent in English than in Arabic. “We are speaking Arabic, clear Arabic, leave!” demonstrators chanted in Amman.
They accuse Queen Rania of building a lifestyle of extreme luxury while her family grows rich on its connections. Many Jordanians still talk of the 40th birthday party she held for herself two years ago in the stunning desert canyon of Wadi Rum, with many of her 600 guests flown in from around the world, the pink granite walls lighted with the number 40 like a giant birthday cake, and drinking water hauled in by the truckload.
“Rania and Abdullah stole Jordan!” goes another popular chant.
But there is still much love for King Hussein, and many appear to extend that nostalgic glow to Prince Hamzah. East Bank Jordanians say that Prince Hamzah was often sent to move among them, to polish his Arabic and to work on the common touch that his father had.
“Hamzah would be better, because King Hussein trained him to be a king,” said Sahel Majali, 54, a businessman in traditional dress sitting on a stoop with a grandson in Amman. “King Abdullah should apologize to the Jordanian people, because his bad decisions have gotten us into this terrible place.”
Faten Talafha, who went to gawk at the protest on Friday in Amman, echoed the sentiment. “In the days of King Hussein, we were a proud people,” she said, and as for Prince Hamzah, “I love him.”
Prince Hamzah has stayed silent, far from the public eye. But three organizers with Hirak said its 70-member steering committee, which meets in the headquarters of an Amman labor union, was leaning toward an embrace of Prince Hamzah, too.
“We used to want just to change the current regime under King Abdullah,” the Hirak organizer said. “But after two years, with no reform, with no action against the corruption, and with fuel prices going up, you begin to see that this guy is in a coma and does not want to connect.”
Added another organizer, “This king can’t reform himself, so let him bring in his brother.”