Another view of Hussein

February 10, 1999|By As'ad AbuKhalil

THE DEATH of King Hussein of Jordan generated a wealth of tributes from politicians and journalists, singing his praises as a ruler, and hailing him as a man of peace and democracy.

The people of Jordan, and the Palestinian people, have a different memory.

Hussein's family came to Jordan early in this century from what is today Saudi Arabia. They were installed by the British as a reward for their blind loyalty to the British throne.

The king himself was unswerving in his subservience to Western interests over the years, except for a brief period in 1990 when he threw in his lot with Saddam Hussein.

The king is also remembered by his people for being one of the few ruling monarchs (at least as far as we know) who was for years on the payroll of the CIA.

The king is also hailed for launching democratization in Jordan, but for years the king ruled through his ruthless "mukhabarat" (intelligence apparatus), which became famous for its use of torture with Palestinian dissidents.

In fact, Hussein resisted democratization until the last decade, when he permitted a democratic opening in response to protests and opposition, not as a way to fulfill his dream for Jordan.

And that effort has been minimal: human rights groups criticized his press law because it raised the minimum amount of capital required thus confining newspaper publishing to his own circle of wealthy loyalists.

The most controversial and unpopular aspect of Hussein's rule has been in his relations with the Palestinians -- at least as far as the Palestinians are concerned. It is insulting to suggest that Palestinians (now the majority of the population of Jordan) need not worry because the new king's wife is Palestinian. It will require much more to repair relations with the Palestinians.

The U.S. press seems to forget that Hussein has done everything in his power to bypass Palestinian national interests and public opinion. Although he pushed himself as the representative of the Palestinians until 1987, he remained very unpopular among the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza, perhaps because they remember "Black September," the bloody war against the Palestinians in Jordan in 1970-71, which resulted in the death of many innocent civilians.

The new king needs to assure the Palestinians that he, unlike his father and great grandfather, will respect Palestinian self-determination and self-representation.

As Jordan prepares for a new era, the United States reacts with arrogance and a heavy hand, providing $25 million in military aid just as the new king was named.

This will be seen as a strong indication of U.S. interference, especially as the succession may not be resolved -- reports from Amman indicate that the brother of the deceased king is deeply dissatisfied. Also, the American embrace may backfire if opponents of the new ruler point to it as a sign of domination and manipulation.

Absent serious political and economic reform -- lifting the state of emergency, preserving the food subsidies that seem to annoy the International Monetary Fund, ensuring the protection of a free press and ultimately, installing a constitutional republic -- Jordan will unfortunately remain yet another unfree Arab country.

As'ad AbuKhalil, a research fellow at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, teaches political science at California State University. He wrote this for Pacific News Service.

Pub Date: 2/10/99

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