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Jordan king's treads delicate line on reform

For Jordan's King Abdullah II, preventing the Arab world's wave of uprisings from washing into to his country has been an exercise in careful calibration — easing his absolute grip on power just enough to defuse protests.

Upcoming parliamentary elections, the centerpiece of the king's reforms, will be a crucial test of his policy in the face of powerful Islamists' demands for more public say in politics.

The Muslim Brotherhood has announced it will boycott the election, saying reforms enacted by the king that could loosen his loyalists' domination of the parliament and give the body somewhat greater authority do not go far enough. The palace says it won't go any further and insists the vote will go ahead even without the country's largest opposition group participating.

The Brotherhood is threatening more protests demanding greater changes that would open the door for it to reach a long-held ambition of forming a government in this close U.S. ally, one of only two Arab nations that have a peace treaty with Israel. The test for it will be whether it can step up a protest movement that has been low-scale and mild in a country where the king has deep-rooted support among powerful Bedouin tribes.

Earlier this month, hundreds of young, bearded Brotherhood activists marched through downtown Amman demanding the election law be changed. "Revolution is headed to Amman," they shouted, gesturing with their fists and choking traffic while walking in the bustling streets under a simmering sun. Passers-by stopped to watch.

For the past year and half, protests have drawn only a few hundred participants in Amman, which is inhabited by a mix of poor Bedouins and others of Palestinian origin who in theory would be more sympathetic to reform calls. The numbers are lower in other cities in northern and southern Jordan, where tribal affiliation is stronger.

But, inspired by the rise of Islamists and the Brotherhood in Egypt and Tunisia after the ouster of those country's longtime leaders, Jordan's branch of the Brotherhood "sees the time is opportune to stage a quick comeback to the limelight in Jordanian politics," said political analyst Labib Kamhawi.

"The Brotherhood is on the saddle and in the race for power," he said. "They are trying to force the hands of the regime to give enough concessions for them to become the government of the day."

Activists warn that the government must be more responsive or else the situation could escalate.

"Jordan is sitting on a powder keg," warned Ahmed Alawneh, a 19-year-old technology student who is a member of a popular movement of young Jordanians eager for change.

"Our calls for genuine reform, giving us a say in politics, are falling on deaf ears and this is only pushing us to the edge," he said.

Wary that a widespread public desire for greater democracy could eventually flare strongly on the streets, the king and his government insist they are sincere on reform. Abdullah has made the parliamentary elections — expected at the end of the year though no date has officially been set — the centerpiece of efforts to stave off a revolt similar to those that have toppled other Arab rulers.

Abdullah made scores of changes, including amending a third of the constitution. The changes give parliament a greater say in choosing the prime minister and appointing a Cabinet, a task that used to be sole prerogative of the king. Still, Abdullah will have final say over the choice. The government's powers to dissolve parliament and issue temporary laws in its absence have also been curbed.

Critics say the moves are insufficient.

"It's a drop in the ocean," said Hamza Mansour, leader of the Islamic Action Front, the Brotherhood's political arm.

He said the opposition wants the parliament to have full powers to form a government. "We want a strong parliament to be a watchdog over the Cabinet. We want the election law to be changed. We want a national salvation Cabinet comprising loyalists and opposition to supervise the changes. And we want the changes to be made quickly," Mansour said.

A new election law enacted last week brought the dispute between the government and the Brotherhood to a bottleneck. The law gives concessions to the opposition by setting aside 27 of the 150 seats in parliament to be chosen by a nationwide list, as opposed to the rest of the seats reserved for representatives from local districts.

Islamists are likely to dominate the national-list seats and get some of the local seats. Pro-government tribal candidates are likely to take most of the local seats, given their strong support from clans and relatives.

The Brotherhood says that will still produce a docile legislature dominated by the king's loyalists. It demands the vote be carried out under a 1989 election law which gave greater leeway and which at the time resulted in the group winning almost half the parliament's seats. So it is boycotting the election as it has the past two ones — and its leftist allies are following suit.

Brotherhood spokesman Jamil Abu-Bakr said his group will "continue holding street protests, rallies and other public events until our demands are met."

A palace official said the election would go ahead even without the Brotherhood. "We can't stop the process for the sake of one opposing party," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to talk to the press. "We can't have a law that appeases everyone, but we feel that there is a consensus that this law is good."

Abdullah appeared in a rare television interview recently urging the Brotherhood to contest the election, calling it "one of the components of Jordanian society that we are proud of." He even hosted leaders of the militant Palestinian group Hamas, who were expelled from Jordan in 1999.

He acknowledged that there "is no country or society that is immune against the danger of chaos." But he insisted that there was substantial reform that will take hold as time goes on. He pointed to the need for Jordan's 23 splintered political parties to coalesce into two or three main groups to better contest elections.

In the past year, Abdullah created an independent commission to supervise parliamentary elections — once done by the government — and a constitutional court to monitor the application of more than two dozen amended laws. He changed the political parties' law to encourage a multiparty system and a municipalities' law to allow Jordanians to govern their towns by electing mayors and city councils.

He also revoked restrictions on protests and allowed the formation of a teachers' union, previously banned out of fears it could influence students. He also put his former intelligence chief on trial for alleged corruption, which he vowed to uproot.

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

"The Hashemites are revered because they are descendants of the Prophet," said Brotherhood leader Zaki Bani Irsheid.

"We are not calling for toppling the monarchy. What we simply want are some changes that would allow the Jordanian people to have a real input in the decision-making," he said.