By Nicholas Noe & Walid Raad
Nov. 8 -- Jordanian commentators aren't sure what to make of the new prime minister, Dr. Aoun al-Khasawinah. In a country ready for change, he sounds good -- maybe too good, some say.
Khasawinah, a respected international jurist, was appointed last month by King Abdullah II. The king sacked the corruption-tainted government of his predecessor, Dr. Marouf al-Bakhit, in an effort to get in front of revolts that so far have deposed three Arab rulers. Almost immediately, Khasawinah spoke bluntly on some of the country’s most controversial issues. This elicited praise from some media figures while others cautioned that he may be offering empty promises.
In the independently owned, Amman-based Al-Arab al-Yawm, Managing Editor Fahd al-Khitan called four statements Khasawinah made during a Nov. 1 meeting with unions “unprecedented” and “courageous."
First, the prime minister rejected as a “constitutional and political mistake” the 1999 ousting from Jordan of the leaders of Hamas, the militant Palestinian organization. The act was accomplished by revoking the leaders' Jordanian citizenship. Maintaining a peace treaty with Israel while hosting Hamas had become an untenable contradiction for the Kingdom after Israel had been hit repeatedly by suicide bombings attributed to Hamas. Currently headquartered in Syria, Hamas went on to win a majority of seats in the 2005 elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council and now controls the self-rule authority in the Gaza Strip.
According to recent reports in the Jordanian media, Khalid Meshal, the head of Hamas, is set to visit the country after the Eid al-Adha holiday this week and meet with top officials, accompanied by the crown prince of Qatar. It would be the first such visit since Hamas’s Amman office was closed.
Khasawinah also acknowledged that Jordan holds political prisoners. Wrote Khitan in his editorial:
The previous governments always denied the existence of political detainees in their prisons, but the use of the term by Prime Minister al-Khasawinah constitutes an unprecedented recognition of their existence.
The new PM said that Jordan's anti-corruption commission wasn't the right venue for pursuing graft, implying that an independent judiciary should have final say. Khitan said:
Some current and former officials had issued similar words about the commission, but behind closed doors. Al-Khasawinah said it out in the open, with ramifications of possible tensions in relations with the commission’s figures and those supporting it.
Finally, Khasawinah said his government was considering overturning the privatization of several government companies. This view, noted Khitan, is "in line with the rhetoric of the radical opposition in Jordan.” The flipside, of course, “is that many decision-making circles in the state do not share Al-Khasawinah’s conviction and perceive his statements to be a source of embarrassment.”
All of which raises the questions: “Does the government have the ability to correct the flaws" identified by Khasawinah? Or has the new prime minister undermined himself by raising expectations to unprecedented levels?
In Al-Majd, which is sympathetic to the opposition Muslim Brotherhood, Sateh az-Zaghoul headlined his piece: “Al-Khasawinah’s government: A leap in the air and not a step forward.”
Khasawinah’s “rash statements in the press,” az-Zaghoul argued, are merely increasing fears that the new government, like the old one, will prove unable “to end the state of confusion and division and restore the compass of reform.”
The proof, he argued, was that while Khasawinah was making his provocative statements, a new Senate was being formed mainly from tribal elements loyal to the king rather than figures known for what az-Zaghoul termed their “liberationist tendencies and political expertise,” meaning, presumably, their sympathy with the popular Muslim Brotherhood.
Writing in the Islamist daily As-Sabil, columnist Umar Ayasirah wrote that some local pundits had mistakenly assumed there was an alliance between al- Khasawinah and the Muslim Brotherhood. Instead, he said, short talks between the two "neither allowed the opening of all files, nor the sealing of alliances and deals." In the end, he said, the Brotherhood refused to take part in the new government and relaunched Friday protests against the government. Of the Brotherhod, Ayasirah wrote:
It will never be a bridge for Aoun al-Khasawinah as he attempts to bring about an incomplete and distorted formula for reform.
Of the issues Khasawinah raised, by far Jordan's relations with Hamas attracted the most attention and debate. From outside Jordan, Saleh al-Qallab wrote in the Saudi-owned, London-based Asharq al-Awsat that regardless of the PM's view of the past, normalization of Jordan's ties with Hamas wasn't possible.
Jordan might accept intermittent visits by Khalid Meshal or members of his politburo but will never allow Hamas to restore its presence in Jordan as was the case before 1999, especially since the region is embroiled in turmoil and the Islamic resistance movement continues to maintain relations with Iran.
A number of commentators disagreed, arguing that relations between Jordan and Hamas are bound to warm up. Writing in the pro-monarchy Ad-Dustour daily, columnist Mahir Abu-Tayr said there is great interest “in Jordan and elsewhere to have Hamas enter the moderate camp." Hamas's public disagreement with its current host over the Syrian regime’s bloody crackdown on protestors, he wrote, may precipitate the group's move to a less-extreme headquarters.
Taking the Hamas leadership back, of course, would create a new set of problems for Khasawinah's government, notably tensions with Israel and the U.S. Yet without that follow-up, the prime minister's statement would be shown to lack real significance. In that case, the question will be obvious to all: does Khasawinah truly have a mandate for change, or is his appointment just another noisy effort by the monarchy to extricate itself from the pain of serious reform.
(Nicholas Noe and Walid Raad are the Beirut correspondents for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are their own.)
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