Does 'Friday of Sieve' Show Jordan Royals Slipping?: Noe & Raad

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By Nicholas Noe & Walid Raad

Feb. 28 -- Jordan's Prince El-Hassan Bin Talal takes pride in his knowledge of history. His recent utterances in an interview on state TV, however, suggest a lapse of understanding of current events.

Mirroring dismissive statements about protesters made by autocrats in Egypt, Yemen and Libya before they fell, Hassan, the uncle of Jordan's King Abdullah, said that only a few dozen, misguided people were protesting in Jordan. Had he been present at one particular protest in Amman, he said, he'd have run the demonstrators “through a sieve” to separate out those making illegitimate demands offensive to the country's founders.

These were the kinds of statements likely to tempt fate, just as Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad had, predicting before his regime began to totter that Syria would be immune from the unrest in other parts of the Arab world. Like Assad, Prince Hassan told his interviewer that foreign entities were attempting to dictate the outcome of the Arab Spring. He suggested that the call for change in many Arab countries was needlessly undermining stability.

Having been removed as crown prince by his brother, King Hussein, just days before the latter's death in 1999, in favor of Hussein's son Abdullah, Hassan had not appeared on state TV in 13 years. His sudden reappearance was seen by some as an official response to widening demands for reform, though both Hassan and the royal court subsequently denied that he spoke for anyone but himself.

Wrote columnist Saud Qubeilat in the Jordanian paper Al-Arab al-Yawm:

Prince Hassan’s recent statements to Jordanian television came as a total surprise and shocked most Jordanians. The man has always been known for his cultural and intellectual interests and for his insistence on having his speech feature rational political solutions.

Instead, Qubeilat said, Hassan's recent statements “seemed to be coming from the authority and from a position of power, in order to address a blatant insult to Jordanians for insisting on demanding real democratic reforms that would render them masters in their own country, return the resources that were stolen from them and place their country on the path toward development.”

Qubeilat suggested that protests -- both online and offline -- would only strengthen as a result of the prince’s “insults.” In the past, he wrote, Jordanians “responded to insults with some of their sons, who put their lives and futures at risk. Today however, they are responding to insults to their dignity in a collective way.”

No official, he warned, is “immune” from criticism and direct challenge -- a lesson he said Prince Hassan apparently had not learned.

Writing in the Jordanian daily Al-Ghad, columnist Fahd al-Khitan was struck by the harshness of remarks directed against the prince in social media, writing that the Jordanian public “was never accustomed to hearing provocative and arrogant statements such as the ones issued by Hassan during his televised interview. Hence, the strong reactions could be considered an expression of shock that affected many even among his supporters.”

In the past, Jordanians could not discuss and comment on the statements of a prince, Khitan noted, “but the climate of the Arab Spring changed the rules of the game and eliminated many red lines. Moreover, social media websites helped create broad spaces for free expression that cannot be reached by censorship.”

Unlike some other commentators, including Qubeilat, Khitan warned that even if the prince’s comments were outrageous, they should not be used “to undermine the historical relations between the regime and the people" or to depict the royal family "as a violator of power.” This, he suggested, was a dangerous road to pursue.

Columnist Nahed Hatar, also of Al-Arab Al-Yawm, was critical of Hassan and the government of Prime Minister Awn Al-Khasawneh, which was appointed by the King. Both, he asserted, were too distant from the average Jordanian to comprehend the people’s “pride and respect for popular action.” He wrote: “Hence, the prince’s belittlement of this action and his talk about only 20 or 30 oppositionists clashed with the facts on the ground.”

Jordanians had expected the government and the prince, in his comments, to tackle “what is most important, i.e., the major causes that prompted popular action, relating to eradication of corruption, dubious privatization deals, the wasting of public funds, achieving constitutional rule and social justice and the development of the provinces.” Instead, protesters' demands are met with vitriol from the prince and inaction from the government, he said.

Referring to some defenders of the prince who argued that he had been manipulated on air, columnist Salah Oudatallah wrote in Al-Muharrir, an independent Jordanian news website, that the prince, alone, was responsible for his remarks. Quoting from previous interviews over the last year in which Hassan seemed to sympathize with protesters in the Arab world and in Jordan specifically, Oudatallah said that in his latest interview the prince had “spoken as though he was another person whose ideas had turned upside down.”

I ask him, whom will you run through the sifter, Your Highness? The people who are lacking food and work and who are suffering poverty, sickness and hunger? We were expecting you to sift out those who are pillaging the country and who have placed their personal interests above the higher national interests.

Oudatallah saluted youth activist Enass Musallam, who, along with activist Ibrahim Dhamour, was stabbed shortly after posting online criticism of the prince’s remarks. Authorities issued a statement shortly after Musallam was stabbed claiming she'd been the victim of an ex-lover, an extremely scandalous allegation in conservative Jordan. “I wish her a quick recovery and shame on the coward who stabbed her,” Oudatallah said.

Last Friday's protests were dubbed “Friday of the Sieve,” and more protests are expected later this week, strengthening the point that wishing away such actions tends to have the opposite effect.

(Nicholas Noe and Walid Raad are the Beirut correspondents for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are their own.)

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-0- Feb/28/2012 23:48 GMT