Jordan has opened a new domestic battlefront with the main Islamic organisation in the country, to add to the many woes that besiege the kingdom, including turmoil in Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
The Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm the Islamic Action Front (IAF) claim the government decided to crack down after the election of the Islamic group Hamas in the occupied Palestinian territories in January and ahead of Jordan’s own polls next year.
Earlier this month, four IAF members of parliament were arrested after visiting the family of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born militant killed in a US air strike in Iraq. Zarqawi, self-styled leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, had claimed responsibility for three hotel bombings that killed 60 people in Amman last November.
Although only one of the four IAF deputies publicly called Zarqawi a “martyr”, all four face charges of “fuelling national discord and inciting sectarianism”.
King Abdullah II this week urged the Islamists to abide by Jordan’s policy of zero tolerance of terrorism and accused them of operating in a “grey area for decades”.
Ruhayel Gharaibeh, deputy secretary-general of the IAF, told the FT his party had always condemned the killing of “innocents” but that attacking soldiers in occupied Iraq and Palestine was justified. He said the group would not respond to the government’s threats.
“This is why it is our policy not to ask for the release of the MPs and not to let the government push us into a corner,” he said. “Our policy is to continue to attack the government on its economic, social and reform policies. The government can send the MPs to the furthest jail if it wants.”
Jordan, a key US ally, allows the Muslim Brotherhood to operate as long as it expresses fealty to the king – in contrast to Egypt and Syria, which in the past have brutally suppressed the Islamists.
But fear remains of an overspill of violence from Iraq by foreign or Jordanian jihadists.
Although support for Zarqawi diminished in the wake of the Amman bombings, the government’s pro-western policies remain deeply unpopular among the many Jordanians who have failed to benefit from recent record inflows into sectors such as real estate and the stock market.
In an opinion poll conducted by Ipsos for Jordan’s Al Ghad daily this week, 15 per cent of those questioned called Zarqawi a “martyr”, while 73 per cent thought it was offensive to apply the term to him.
Meanwhile, the government labelled “insulting” to the families of Zarqawi’s victims a Human Rights Watch statement that said the arrest of the four Islamist MPs was an unacceptable violation of free speech.
Underlying the escalating debate is renewed tension over Jordan’s identity. A majority of the citizens are of Palestinian origin and many feel outrage over the western aid boycott, backed by Jordan, of the Hamas-led government.
Jordan fears an additional influx of Palestinian refugees if Israel presses ahead unilaterally to set its borders in the West Bank should negotiations fail. Many Jordanians also believe their country has failed to achieve tangible benefits in return for a peace treaty signed with Israel in 1994.
Nonetheless, Jordan is preparing to press ahead with long-planned political reforms. Parliament this year is supposed to formulate new laws on media freedom, funding of political parties and a new national electoral system, which should give more representation to urban areas, where many Jordanians of Palestinian origin live.
Reform is expected to benefit the Islamists, the only organised opposition bloc, with 17 MPs in the 110-member parliament.
But full political maturity will take time.
“It’s catch-22. You need to open up to make the political system work, but the knee-jerk reaction of the government is to crack down and it’s trying to put the Islamists back in the box,” said one western observer.
Mr Gharaibeh said the IAF’s next electoral campaign would promise change to bring about a model close to that of countries such as Malaysia. He said the government’s adherence to an IMF programme had raised income disparities and benefited only a small elite.
“There is zero per cent support for the killing of civilians in Jordan, but 99 per cent do believe in fighting the US and Israel,” said Mr Gharaibeh. “The Islamic movement will continue to participate in the political process and we believe in comprehensive change, step by step.”
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006