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Jordan, Syria thus far successful in heading off mass protests

With revolutionary social change sweeping through most parts of the Arab world, Jordan and Syria have remained the notable exceptions. Deutsche Welle looks at how those two countries are keeping the peace - for now.

Jordanian and Egyptian activists protest

Jordanian protesters supported the revolution in Egypt

It's not that there haven't been protests in Jordan. For months, members of the Islamic Muslim Brotherhood, leftists and labor activists have taken to the streets demanding political reforms and economic improvements.

But public anger is not directly aimed at the head of state, King Abdullah.

"We are not calling for a change of regime," Walid Kalaji, the editor-in-chief of the Jordanian weekly The Star, told Deutsche Welle. "You can tell from the people on the street. We are fed up with economic situation and the social structure in this country: high prices and having taxation all the time."

Protestors themselves also say that they are not angry with the king but with the government. But given that King Abdullah is an absolute monarch who directly appoints the government, how has he managed to escape the harshest sorts of criticism?

In part, it seems, by paying attention to and addressing the causes of popular discontent. At the beginning of February, Abdullah sacked his entire cabinet and appointed a reformist Marouf Bakhit as the country's new prime minister.

The Jordanian government has also freed up the equivalent of 500 million euros ($700 million) to ease the suffering of the poorest of its citizens.

Another reason why few Jordanians are calling for the monarchy to go is that it's seen as a necessary institution in a country split between native Jordanians and Palestinian refugees, with the latter in the majority.

"The monarchy is vital for the stability of the country," Kalaji said. "The king is always there. You can change governments as you wish. Otherwise the unknown could be very frightening."

Still, political change is likely unavoidable. The question is: how radical will it be?

Consitutional monarchy?

Jordanian King Abdullah (L) greets the new Prime Minister Marouf Bakhit

King Abdullah appointed Bakhit, r, in response to public discontent

King Abdullah is hardly exempt from questions raised about a system that produces unpopular governments. So many Jordanians are saying his political role will have to change.

"The king will have to cede power in order to have broader participation in Jordan," Jordanian journalist Lamis Adoni told Deutsche Welle. "We don't want to change the regime but if you want to stay, you have to stay according to our terms. This is the first time in history that the Jordanian people are talking like this about the king."

Prime Minister Bakhit has thus far dismissed any possibility that King Abdullah might serve in a primarily representative role in the future. Still, others say the political future in Jordan could be a system like that in Britain or the Netherlands.

"We would like to see a constitutional monarchy here in Jordan," Kalaji said. "The regime has to realize that change is bound to happen now. I wouldn't say it's a domino effect, but people are reacting to the revolutions that have happened and are demanding that democracy be applied. This means that you have to have a democratically elected government."

If Kalaji is right, change is on its way - despite the absence of mass protests directed at the head of state.

Syrian situation

Syrian man looks at Valentine's day display

Unrest has been suppressed in Syria, but disharmony remains

Reporters search in vain for public protests in Syria. That's largely because state coercion and surveillance by Prime Minister Bashar Assad's government keeps the populace in line.

But experts say that doesn't mean that there isn't public discontent.

"30 percent of society - six million Syrians - are living on less than two dollars a day," Syrian economic expert Samir Seifan told Deutsche Welle. "Syria should take care of this because it creates instability in society. We want to open our economy, to produce more, to export more and deliver more sectors with high incomes."

And while the state suppresses open political protest, using emergency laws to jail critics of the regime, it has also instituted reforms aimed at relieving social tension.

Restrictions on websites like Facebook and Youtube were lifted without any great fanfare, and Syrian media has reported openly, even sarcastically, about the regimes in Egypt and Tunisia that were overthrown. Assad has also started food distribution programs for Syria's poor.

Another reason for the relatively stability in Syria may be the presence of a million Iraqi refugees in the country, a living reminder of the consequences of civil strife.

Thus far, Assad's carrot-and-stick policies seem to be sufficient to head off any effective opposition movement. But as developments across the Arab world have shown in 2011, seemingly stable societies can erupt in protest very quickly and unexpectedly.

Author: Ulrich Leidholdt (jc)
Editor: Rob Mudge

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