World and Nation

Demonstrations whisper of an Arab spring in Jordan

KARAK, Jordan — Beneath a statue of a glowering Saladin, a medieval Islamic warrior, a crowd unfurled banners and began chanting protests against the country’s leadership in its palaces and government offices far below the precipices of this ancient fortress town.

Jordan’s Hashemite monarch, King Abdullah II, who turned 50 last month, has had to become accustomed to such scenes as he marks his 13th year on the throne.

“We want social justice,” chanted the crowd, reading from a handwritten list of political, economic, and social grievances.

“Real elections,” they shouted. “I’m a citizen, not a beggar.”

Such public criticism of Jordan’s nearly century-old monarchy would have been unthinkable just a year ago among these tribesmen of the country’s heartland.

The king’s opponents among urban liberals and Islamist fundamentalists have long called for change in the country’s political and economic systems. But the protesters here in Karak are part of the monarchy’s main popular base, the tribes outside the cities.

No one appeared scared, or deterred, as the secret police recorded the protesters, who belong to the same families from which the nation’s security officers have long been recruited.

When the Arab Spring began, Jordan initially appeared vulnerable to the protests that were roiling other nations and toppling their longtime dictators. With none of the resources of its wealthy neighbors on the Persian Gulf, Jordan struggles with rising energy costs, a water shortage, social strains and an official unemployment rate of around 12 percent — with unofficial estimates of at least double that.

But Jordan is also small, with only about 6.5 million people, and its king has managed to avoid the kind of turmoil that has upended other Arab countries by granting modest concessions like dismissing government ministers and preserving popular subsidies and by employing the security forces. Jordan’s efficiency in suppressing domestic and external challenges has been criticized by human rights groups.

The king also has tried to appease public anger over corruption. Thursday, the official news agency Petra announced that the authorities had detained a former chief of the intelligence service, Mohammad al-Dahabi, in connection with a continuing graft investigation. Other prominent officials and businessmen also are facing investigation.

The protest in Karak was not intended to topple a monarchy, and at most, 150 protesters had gathered. Unlike in Cairo or Tunis, the demonstrators here called for overhauling the system, not bringing it down.