Jordan's protest

Observations on the Middle East

Located in a suburb of Amman, the Israeli embassy in Jordan occupies a huge compound circled by high walls and concrete barriers: the roads leading in are guarded by a series of checkpoints manned by heavily armed soldiers.

The streets are quiet now, but on 4 August police clashed with protesters and used clubs to break up a crowd of more than 200 gathered at a nearby mosque. The demonstrators had intended to march on the embassy to protest against Israel's bombardment of Lebanon.

Protest in Jordan is rarely tolerated. The government is acutely aware that its alliance with the United States and especially its diplomatic ties with Israel are at odds with public opinion. The authorities dread that internal unrest will grow among Jordan's citizens, more than half of whom are Palestinian.

For this reason, a number of repressive measures have been put in place to stifle dissent. The most significant is the Public Assembly Law 2004: originally intended to prevent demonstrations in support of the Palestinian intifada, it demands that all public gatherings obtain official authorisation from the interior ministry three days prior to them taking place. Permission is seldom granted and there is no right to appeal. The media, too, are closely monitored and restricted from publishing anything that might "threaten national unity".

However, ethnic Palestinians are not the only group in Jordan voicing dissatisfaction. The Professional Associations Council, a group with more than 100,000 members, including lawyers and journalists, has called for public institutions to be allowed to express their views freely; the PAC president, Hashim Abu Hassan, wrote to the prime minister, Marouf al-Bakhit, condemning the crackdown on demonstrations. Fighting talk has also come from the Islamic Action Front, a political branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has called for an economic boycott of Israel.

In this climate, it would be tempting to paint Jordan as a tinderbox, but so far the government is maintaining a crude balancing act. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the media. A report on the 4 August protest in the English-language weekly the Star ran the headline "Jordan wholeheartedly behind Lebanon", above which, in much smaller letters, was written "Government bans demos". The article was careful to emphasise "the endless efforts of His Majesty King Abdullah II to mobilise the international community to intervene in the best interests of the . . . Middle East", and then went on to mention objections to the banning of the demonstration.

For now, Jordanians' anger is focused on Israel and the US rather than their own government and monarchy. It remains to be seen how long this can continue. As Lebanon adjusts to the ceasefire, Amman has weathered one potential crisis, but with no peace in Palestine, continuing bloodshed in Iraq and the Iranian nuclear crisis unresolved, Jordan's ties to the US could still prove its undoing.