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Jordan: Looking for an Opening

How can Israeli soldiers fight a ten-year-old boy who wants to die? Or a teen-ager at the wheel of an exploding truck—smiling because he knows that in ten seconds he will be in Heaven? This is the generation I am afraid of!” The speaker, though she had just come from her weekly Hebrew lesson, was not an Israeli or a Jew. I was talking with Mrs. Laila Sharaf, a Druse woman of Lebanese origin, who is the Jordanian minister of information. We were sitting in her office off the Third Circle in Amman. It was early August, and I’d just arrived in Jordan after several weeks in Israel.

Mrs. Sharaf speaks English enthusiastically and precisely and knows many Americans. But she cannot fathom America. “We don’t have that same feeling we once had that America can be relied on,” she said. “The kind of support we need to survive has seriously eroded since the Fifties and Sixties. If some hostile Arab country attacked us we would probably get American support. But if Israel undermines us, nothing. For Americans, and particularly for American Jews, Israel is an abstraction, while we face an Israel that is concrete.”

Nevertheless, Mrs. Sharaf will send her son to Boston this fall, to study piano and guitar. She says this casually, as if it were no more unusual than sending him to high school in Amman. She talks not only about America but about the “concrete” Israel in a matter-of-fact way. Showing me her Hebrew workbooks she points to the illustrations of attractive, serious-looking Israeli students going off to school. “Under conditions of peace,” she says, “there is no limit to what we can do.”

What causes her voice to rise and tighten is Islamic extremism. She talks of Khomeini’s young guards, willing to die in battle against Iraq, which Jordan is supporting more actively than ever, of the increasingly militant Shi’ite radicals in southern Lebanon, and of the Nasserites among Jordan’s Palestinian community, now well over 60 percent of the Jordanian population. There are also increasing numbers of students at Jordan’s own religious colleges. Mrs. Sharaf finds the undercurrents they represent to be deeply threatening:

They are very dangerous; you can’t give them an opening. If we are undermined by Israeli aggression then the Israelis are undermined. Before the 1967 war, the Israelis said, ‘if only the Arabs would sit down with us!’ Now the situation is reversed. Can Israelis not see that by failing to deal with the outside world, by failing to defuse the Palestinian bomb, they are missing the chance to defy the extremists? Is Qadhafi the only Arab that makes sense to them? Kissinger wanted us to buy time, but extremism on both sides is overcoming us. We have bought too much time.”

We talked about the Israeli elections. Mrs. Sharaf was familiar with the nuances separating the various Israeli splinter parties, indeed, with the manifestations of Jewish religious extremism in the campaign. She realized that a clear Labor Alignment victory was, for the present, a forlorn hope, and she wondered whether Israeli democracy itself was now at risk. Many Israelis wonder too. But isn’t Mrs. Sharaf’s concern presumptuous in view of Jordan’s own domestic politics? King Hussein’s autocratic monarchy is no model of democracy, after all; and it is another impediment to solving the question of Palestinian national rights. Is not monarchy deeply at odds with the liberal and constitutional views she and so many other elite Jordanians openly espouse—including Crown Prince Hassan, whom I was going to see the next day?

Mrs. Sharaf does not evade such questions. The widow of the widely admired former prime minister Abdul Hamid Sharaf, she was appointed to the cabinet by King Hussein after she led a campaign as a member of the National Consultative Council, Jordan’s appointed and largely ceremonial upper house, to recall the country’s elected parliament. (Jordan’s parliament, which included representatives from the East and West Banks, was suspended in 1974, after the Rabat conference stripped Hussein of the mandate to represent the Palestinians.) Mrs. Sharaf’s was a polite campaign; His Majesty is her friend. Still, she had been sufficiently outspoken in her views to have an influence on others close to the royal palace, and to encourage younger, reformminded members of the Jordanian press.

However seriously her criticism was taken, King Hussein finally did recall the parliament last winter, and elections were held for eight seats, including an election for the huge constituency of Amman itself. Dozens of independent candidates stood for election. Practically everyone over twenty voted: men and women, even Palestinians still in refugee camps.

Many Western observers have speculated that this was merely Hussein’s device to make the Jordanian regime seem legitimate among the West Bank population, and, in fact, the summoning of West Bank representatives to Amman certainly caused a stir in the Jerusalem Arab press. Yet about one million Palestinians are now either living comfortably in Amman or working in the Gulf with Jordanian passports. It is hard to see how the Jordanian government can avoid trying to come up with constitutional means to shape Palestinian nationalism on both banks of the Jordan. Mrs. Sharaf did not hesitate to voice her skepticism regarding the PLO’s future.

There is, she says, a “strong, positive Palestinian national movement”; to give the Palestinians anything less than a state would be “blasphemy.” But she carefully avoids saying that the PLO would lead such a state, or specifying what significant powers the state would have. The Palestinians who seem particularly radical and risky to her are the “negative and hostile” PLO factions that now have their headquarters in Damascus. The various leaders “keep raising the idea of confederation,” she says, “but we are merely looking for ways to join forces with the Palestinians.” Her “personal view” is that were the West Bank to be liberated, “there would obviously be no need for any liberation movement.”

The day before my meeting with Mrs. Sharaf, George Hawatmeh, the editor of The Jordan Times, the leading English-language paper in Amman, had been more frank about what a Palestinian state would amount to. “One is speaking here,” he told me, “of a UN representative and a national football team!” Did that mean that, at least in the Jordanian view, Palestinian self-determination would mean no more than sovereignty over certain cultural symbols? That it would be the result of a deal made to fit Jordanians and people on the West Bank, not one dictated by the more unpredictable refugees? Hawatmeh agreed. Besides, he assured me, times have changed. If Israel tried to get everything, the Arab world would never give up the cause; he warned of the Arab world’s capacity for atavism. Yet a Palestinian state with little actual power, he was convinced, would now satisfy most Palestinians, even his older cousin, Naif Hawatmeh, the leader of the PDFLP, one of the “hostile” factions in Damascus.

Hawatmeh, who admirers Mrs. Sharaf, nevertheless was disappointed that the recall of Jordan’s parliament did not allow for the organization of political parties. Palestinians would be more attracted to the Hashemite regime, he said, if the PLO were allowed to organize peacefully within Jordan. Clearly, this is not what the king has had in mind. Still, Hawatmeh said, the elections have excited expectations of more reform. “The king has called for public discussion of Palestinian–Jordanian relations, and it is surprising how he seems to mean this.” But the system still frightens people. Jordan is still governed by martial law, which the courts enforce; the press fears being closed down. People are afraid to speak their minds and are then amazed to discover that nothing happens to them when they do. “Perhaps they are not used to democracy!” He winked, fingering his worry beads.

The parliament has called for changing the emergency law, for restricting the security forces. Yet the parliament’s first order of business was to set up a royal commission to overhaul Jordan’s notoriously inefficient civil service. For her part, Mrs. Sharaf readily admits that the recall of the parliament was “not a very fulfilling experience”—only a first step. But she does not share Hawatmeh’s enthusiasm for political parties. Too easily they become militias. Obviously, the example of Beirut has been cautionary:

There can be no real parties in the near future. We are too fragmented, too subject to external influences. My husband had the idea of establishing a ‘national covenant’ by referendum—that Jordan is an Arab state, that it guarantees private property, etc.—and permitting the formation of parties around this. But we have not yet crystallized the shape of the party system.”

Mrs. Sharaf was disturbed that, of the eight seats contested for the Jordanian parliament, three were won by religious fundamentalists, and a fourth was won by a man with fundamentalist leanings. Large numbers of Jordanians are poorly educated and still part of a traditional society. The population includes not just huge Bedouin clans with tribal claims upon the regime, but also thousands of Palestinian refugees and displaced fellaheen. In contrast, the Westernized Jordanian upper class—for which Mrs. Sharaf implicitly speaks—is a thin stratum of families, many of which have grown rich both from managing investments in the Persian Gulf during the last ten years and from aid the Hashemite regime has received from the Gulf states since the Baghdad Pact of 1978.

More numerous, but still comparatively small, is the middle class of Palestinians and Jordanians and Circassians—merchants, teachers, doctors, and engineers; perhaps a quarter of a million people—whose absorption into the Jordanian power elite is probably Hussein’s real purpose in pursuing parliamentary reform. Middle-class families are educated; they pay taxes; their sons are drafted. The Gulf states are in a recession; Jordanian economic growth, 10.7 percent in 1982, dropped to 5.4 percent in 1983. How long will the middle class defer to the Hashemite throne as if to a business partner?

Reform of the civil service is thus part of the effort to supersede the tribal nepotism of the old Hashemite regime. The point is to give the Jordanian state apparatus a more pragmatic basis than personal fealty to the king. “The bureaucracy developed in the context of tribal relations,” Mrs. Sharaf explains. “It took in many more people than necessary, stacked offices with useless people.” An administrative revolution will not create a more liberal politics—“the old bureaucracy already treated Jordanians and Palestinians with perfect equality: all badly”—but it might clear out some of the deadwood that has been choking off business initiative and technological modernization.

I left Mrs. Sharaf more impressed by her somewhat autocratic vision for Jordan than perhaps I ought to have been. But there are new roads, spacious new buildings, and a fine new airport in Amman; and the people, as before, seem more open and willing to talk critically than I expected the subjects of an autocracy to be. When I thanked Mrs. Sharaf for her time, she replied in Hebrew, “Lehitraot!“—“I’ll be seeing you.”

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