However, the reality is complicated. It’s illegal to criticize the king here, but prosecutions are rare and those convicted often get royal pardons. The secret police are feared, but are not a constant, threatening presence as in Syria. If some politicians say their phones are tapped, even the harshest critics speak fairly openly.
Abdullah has faced little public criticism at home since he ascended to the throne in 1999. After the Arab Spring’s eruption in late 2010, Jordan has seen frequent but small protests.
Then, last Tuesday, Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour hiked the prices of cooking and heating gas by 54 percent and some oil derivatives by up to 28 percent, saying that was necessary to reduce a record budget deficit and growing foreign debt and tackle high unemployment, poverty and waves of Syrian refugees, who are straining meager resources. He said the move was part of Jordan’s efforts to secure a badly needed $2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund to shore up the kingdom’s shaky finances amid a shortfall of Arab donations this year.
The protest backlash was unusually violent, with one person killed and 75 others, including 58 policemen, injured. There was also a change in tone, as angry protesters blamed Abdullah for the price rise, accusing him of supporting state corruption by allegedly pocketing state money to spend on personal pleasures.
It was a rare departure from the norm of revering Abdullah’s Hashemite dynasty. Its line of descent from the Prophet Muhammad, combined with the elaborate system of patronage aimed at powerful local leaders, has earned the family immense loyalty among the Bedouin tribes who make up the traditional core of Jordanian society.
Protests have dwindled to a handful per day this week, and violence has waned. But the opposition has vowed to continue until the price hikes are revoked.
The protesters also want broader political gains.
The Islamic Action Front’s leader, Hamza Mansour, said as a first step, the king must dismiss Ensour and ‘‘form a national salvation government that would include Islamists and other opposition figures to change controversial legislation, like the election law, and help parliament regain its independence so that it can impartially monitor the government and official corruption.’’
So far, Abdullah has maintained control, partly by relinquishing some of his absolute powers to parliament. His reform roadmap envisions parliamentary elections slated for Jan. 23 as a vehicle toward having an elected prime minister for the first time in the country’s history. Previously, it was the king’s prerogative to appoint the premier.
He also changed 42 articles, or one-third of Jordan’s 60-year-old constitution, to ensure an end to government manipulation over parliament. He created a constitutional court to monitor the application of the law. Other new laws encourage a multiparty system, allow Jordanians to elect mayors and city councils and lift restrictions on rallies and public gatherings.
Abdullah also changed the election law. But the Brotherhood responded by announcing a boycott of the upcoming election, saying the legislation favors locally-based conservative candidates rather than parties with an ideological base. The government said it has adopted a globally recognized system of elections, and that the Islamists’ alternative would inflate their own representation.
Information Minister Sameeh Maaytah said the groundwork was laid for reform, but that ‘‘change can’t happen overnight.’’
‘‘We have a nascent multiparty system that must be nurtured so that it would mature and be able to contest future elections based on party banners,’’ he said. ‘‘We can’t leave any unfilled vacuum because the alternative would be a total mess.’’